Sun Biz: Agro-tours entertain, offer insight, boost revenue for agribusinesses

THERESA HIGH and her son Keenan, 11, give agro-tours of High Country Orchards, 3548 E 1/2 Road on East Orchard Mesa. Keenan has been guiding tours since he was 9 and his mom says he offers a youngster’s unfiltered perspective, which appeals to tour takers.

Cold weather threatened this year’s peach crop, and while orchardists say a full crop can still be realized, some growers have protected themselves in case Mother Nature is not so friendly next time.

Theresa High, who manages of High County Orchards, which she owns with her husband Scott, said in order to survive, “It’s so important these days to diversify.”

Her family gives tours of their orchard to help earn money, and they plan to open a winery.

Another operation, SunCrest Orchard Alpacas, owned by Mike and Cindy McDermott, uses spare land to raise alpacas and sell their fleece.

High Country Orchards started as a 10-acre peach orchard in 1999 and has expanded to a 126-acre complex, where the Highs grow cherries, grapes and peaches and host agro-tours.

High admits the recent weather caused stress, but she’s making it through, “because we don’t have all our peaches in one basket.”

The Highs purchased land in the Grand Valley with the aim of opening a winery.

“We had looked for vineyard property around the world, but we didn’t want to leave Colorado,” High said.

This will be the first year the orchard produces grapes for a cabernet, which will take two years before it’s ready to bottle. High said the goal is to have a winery and possibly a distillery.

“Our grape harvest is fine. Those buds weren’t even close to being open,” she said.

Orchard tours are another sideline. The lucky customers get one from 11-year-old Keenan High. He began giving tours of the farm when he was 9 and was an instant hit.

“People love to hear about it from the kids because its so unfiltered,” Theresa High said.

Before moving to the Grand Valley to run the orchard, Theresa High worked in marketing, so the tours seemed like a natural progression for her orchard. As for Keenan, “He is a natural marketer,” she said. “I didn’t know he had it in him.”

Agro-tourism has expanded in the Grand Valley, especially in Palisade, where it has been showcased during the Peach Festival. In 2008 more than 1,300 people took tours during the festival. That number was up from approximately 500 in 2006 and 2007, according to Leif
Johnson, the executive director of the Palisade Chamber of Commerce.

Tours are held at orchards, wineries, Peach Street Distillers, Palisade Brewery, even at alpaca farms.

SunCrest Orchard Alpacas is an alpaca farm alongside an 8-acre peach orchard. Owners Mike and Cindy McDermott five years ago brought in their first alpacas, which reside on less than an acre of what was spare land.

“Land is valuable, and you’ve got to make it productive,” Mike McDermott said.

The McDermotts settled on alpacas because Cindy, who is not too keen on farm animals, instantly fell in love with the docile alpacas.

According to Mike McDermott, the animals are bred for their fleece, an emerging industry in the United States. Levi Strauss & Co. is slated to roll out a line of alpaca jeans this autumn, he said.

“We’re just scratching the surface of the potential of it,” McDermott said.

Another addition at SunCrest is a yarn mill that was completed in December. It is run by McDermott, who was laid off in January by a survey company. It is connected to a small farm shop where the McDermotts sell alpaca goods, including dyed yarn produced in the mill.

Alpaca owners experience waits of six months to three years at established mills to get their fleece turned into yarn, McDermott said.

He expects he can be successful if he can turn 20 pounds of fleece a day; he is currently processing 5 to 7 pounds. The mill is a service for fellow alpaca farmers as a place to turn their fleece into valuable yarn.

“If they can succeed, then I’ll succeed,” McDermott said.


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