Late crop causes abundance of fruit

An abundance of ripe fruit still on the trees and rotting peaches underfoot in many of Palisade’s orchards this time of year mean sour grapes for area farmers.

Though peach growers reported a bumper crop, a belated spring that pushed the typical harvest back two weeks, missed the mark for consumers who expect to nosh the syrupy, sweet fruit during the height of summer.

“With Labor Day early and crops late, people were marooned,” peach producer Bruce Talbott said of the year growers are labeling both good and bad.

In normal years, Talbott said, growers would have only 10 to 15 percent of their peaches remaining on the trees come Sept. 1. This year, when the first of September rolled around, many farmers reported having up to half their crops still unpicked. What follows is a gamble for farmers. Do they spend the money to pick and package the fruit, knowing it may rot without a viable market? Or do they cut their losses and simply leave the fruit where it lies?

“A high percentage of this industry is dependent on direct sales,” Talbott said. “There was a large volume of fruit, but now those markets are closing down, and there’s nowhere for the fruit to go.”

In an attempt to soften the blow, Palisade’s Sunday downtown farmers markets has been extended at least through this weekend.

The volume of peach production was up about 10 percent and the quality was superb, but those gains were eclipsed by the calendar, Talbott said. Labor Day fell on Sept. 1 this year, nearly a week earlier than last year’s Sept. 6. The end-of-summer holiday marks a psychological shift in the seasons, he said, prompting folks to cast aside peaches in search of cool weather fruits and vegetables, such as apples and squash.

The late peach harvest meant missed opportunities for Renee Herman, who runs the Herman Produce fruit stands on Palisade’s Elberta Avenue. Herman said she couldn’t provide as many peaches as requested for the larger one-time events, such as Palisade’s Peach Festival, which fell in mid-August, a time when many of their peaches had not yet ripened.

“Buyers kept calling and saying, ‘Are you sending them to someone else?’ ” she said. “We just didn’t have them.”

According to the Colorado Foundation for Agriculture, peaches were the state’s leading fruit crop in 2006, valued at $17 million. During that year, the average price of peaches was $0.65 a pound, and peach sales weighed in at 28 million pounds. Mesa and Delta counties dominate the state’s peach market as a half-million peach trees dot the Western Slope.

A normal harvest season runs between Aug. 5 and Sept. 20, but Talbott said he already shifted his crops to include more trees that produce fruit earlier in the season. Talbott, who mostly sells wholesale, also lost a major customer who assumed the farm must be selling its peaches to someone else when he couldn’t provide more peaches earlier in the season.

“In the last few years, the best stuff has been late,” he said. “We’re heavily pressured to plant early-August fruit. We may see some dynamic changes in the industry.”


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