Peach production hits apex in Grand Valley at High Country Orchards

Peach production hits apex in Grand Valley at High Country Orchards

Workers pack peaches recently at High Country Orchards, 3548 E 1/2 Road on East Orchard Mesa. As the Palisade Peach Festival hits full stride this weekend, High Country Orchards is one of the Grand Valley’s fruit growers harvesting at its seasonal peak.

This peach sizing machine at High Country Orchards is a high-tech digital peach sizer that allows for picking tree-ripe peaches.



High Country Orchards, 3548 E 1/2 Road, 464-1150, will be open dawn to dusk during the 44th annual Palisade Peach Festival, which runs through Sunday. In addition, High Country Orchards is hosting Saturday’s Feast in the Fields. Information at

PALISADE — Keeping pace with Theresa High as she darts through the beehive busy packing shed at High Country Orchards is a lesson in time and motion efficiency.

Maneuvering easily back and forth amid the cavernous building with its continuous din of rousing music, endless conveyors distributing tree-ripe peaches to quick-handed packers and forklifts moving high-stacked pallets, each holding 72 20-pound boxes of peaches headed to select Front Range markets, High impresses on a visitor how busy this peach season has become.

“It’s amazing we’re just about done picking our Angelus (peaches) and they’re the last ones we pick,” High said earlier this week as the final crates of orchard-fresh peaches were sized, graded and readied for trucking to Whole Foods, Tony’s Markets and King Soopers markets across the state.

As the Palisade Peach Festival hits full stride this weekend, fruit growers across the valley have been pushed to exhaustion as the valley’s crush of ripe peaches comes to its seasonal peak, much of it two to three weeks early this year because of the heat wave earlier this summer.

The hot days balanced by cool nights had pickers busy in mid-June rather than the early July start of last year. Road- side stands and farm markets have showcased the early varieties — New Haven, Flavor Crest and Red Globe, among them — for nearly a month and now comes the popular freestone varieties.

“I can’t believe how intense these past weeks have been, more than I want it to be,” said High, who runs the day-to-day operations of the High Country Orchards and packing operation on East Orchard Mesa, which she co-owns with her husband, Scott.

She also owns and operates Colterris Winery.

To help smooth the labor-intensive packing process, and to ensure their unblemished, tree-ripe peaches would remain that way during their trip from picker to pie, Theresa and Scott High seven years ago invested in a digital processor that in a few seconds grades and sizes each peach, a task elsewhere performed less quickly by hand.

“Before we owned the orchard, we would come up here from Denver and take back these immense tree-ripe peaches you couldn’t find in any of the stores,” Theresa recalled. “When we finally moved here and started our orchards, we decided the only way to get those peaches is to invest in a high-tech system.”

Growing tree-ripe peaches isn’t difficult: It’s the trip between orchard and consumer that is the deal-killer.

Rough handling that causes bruising, unseen shipping delays, and even the machines that differentiate the peaches by size can destroy a year’s work.

“Many peaches are sized on machines made for apples, which are smaller, which means you can’t pick a peach any bigger than the hole it has to go through,” said Theresa High, offering one of her red-blushing, two-handed peaches for a visitor to heft. “To get fully ripe, peaches need to get bigger than apples and this machine allows us to grow tree-ripe fruit.”

Because peaches don’t ripen further once they are picked, allowing them to ripen on the tree is the only way to assure a fully ripened peach.

“It’s similar to growing grapes,” she said, drawing on her winemaking experience. “It’s important to leave the grape on the vine to develop the sugars, the acid and pH to balance the wine but once it’s picked, there is little a winemaker can do.

“The same with peaches. They don’t get any riper once they are picked. So if you want a true tree-ripe peach, you have to leave it on the tree as long as necessary.”

But there is only so much a machine — even a $400,000 machine — can do. Once scanned, each peach travels on a roller belt to where human hands and eyes and noses do the final selection.

The eastern sky is barely lit when High Country Orchard starts picking and within minutes of being harvested those peaches are boxed and waiting in the facility’s 35-degree cooler for a quick trip via semitrailer to a distributing center in Denver.

By midmorning the next day, less than 24 hours from the tree, a consumer is leaving a Denver grocer with that peach in his or her basket.

“I’ve timed it many times and from the time the peach is brought here from the orchard to the time it’s sized, sorted, boxed and on a pallet headed for the cooler is six minutes,”  High said. “That’s why we invested in this machine, so we can grow a tree-ripe peach and not leave its flavor in the cooler. This is its eighth harvest and it’s paid for itself.”

Other investments, including replanting the orchard (it’s 75 percent new trees, High said) and relying on the wisdom and experience of orchard manager Tony Fernandez, who emphasizes his desire “for quality, not quantity,” have also paid off.

In 2009, the First Family stopped at High Country Orchards during a tour of the area by President Barack Obama, and a few cherished photos show boxes of High Country peaches being carried onto Air Force One.

No question, High Country Orchards is flying high.


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