For the December issue of 5280, deputy editor Lindsey Koehler spent a few days on the Western Slope in the town of Palisade reporting “Fruits Of Their Labor.” The piece looks at one particularly iconic aspect of Colorado’s $41 billion a year agriculture industry: Palisade peaches. Koehler’s piece centers on two families—the Talbotts and the Clarks—that have long made their living farming Palisade’s prized crop. As Koehler writes of the work these families have done for generations, “raising peaches is not for those with feeble constitutions; it requires the rare combination of a gambler’s disposition and a strong work ethic.” Here, Koehler expands a bit upon her reporting on the region that produces—and the people who care for—Colorado’s most precious piece of fruit.
5280: Why write about Palisade and the iconic peaches that are grown there for the December Environment Issue?
Lindsey Koehler: When we began to concept the Environment Issue, I spent time thinking about what made Coloradans’ connection to their surroundings different than residents of other states. Of course, I thought about the mountains—they are, after all, the most obvious example of our state’s natural gifts—and how we are drawn to their beauty and the unparalleled recreation opportunities they offer. But as I kept researching, I learned that agriculture is one of the state’s top economic drivers. I also learned that ag is one of the largest users of natural resources such as water. Knowing these things, I wanted to tell a story of our ag industry and how it is tied to the land. Being a fan of Colorado-grown peaches—and having been to Palisade for other stories—I thought immediately of the farmers in that stunning, fertile valley on the Western Slope
For those who haven’t been to the town, or maybe have only pulled off the highway to stop at a fruit stand, can you describe a bit about what makes Palisade a particularly special place?
For sheer beauty, few places rival Palisade. The wide, meandering Colorado River flows through the verdant Grand Valley, which is lined on all sides by towering mesas. On the valley floor, orchards bleed into one another, weaving a lovely patchwork quilt of pears, apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, and peaches. So, yes, it’s special for its appearance, but it’s the local microclimate—an unusually temperate area fed by warm winds coming off the mesas—that makes Palisade what it is: the fruit basket of Colorado.
In your piece, you describe how even the slightest hiccup with a crop can be enough to force some Palisade farmers to take a second job for a season. Just how fine is the line between success and failure for some of these families?
The notion that the fruit-growing business is run on a knife’s edge was a constant theme during the interviews I had with Palisade peach farmers. These families—and most of them are family-run businesses—face so many obstacles throughout the year: spring frosts, destructive summer weather patterns, and manpower issues, among other things. When all of a grower’s annual income is generated in one three-month period, it’s nothing short of devastating if an entire crop is destroyed. After all, how do you pay your bills, prune and plant for next year, buy fertilizer, maintain your staff, and pay yourself if you didn’t make a dime during the only time during the year that you have product to sell? Either you have saved for a rainy day or you get a job off the farm to make ends meet until the next harvest.
By the end of your piece, it’s clear that Dennis Clark—who obviously takes a deep sense of pride in his work—feels strongly about what he sees as a lack of understanding among Americans about where their food comes from.
Just one or two generations ago, almost every person in America had a direct or indirect connection with the agriculture industry. Today, only about one percent of Americans make their living in agriculture. But here’s the thing: We all rely on that industry to feed our families. I imagine Clark’s views are more complicated than I can describe here and I certainly don’t want to speak for him, but I believe that Clark—and farmers like him—feel unsupported in their endeavors. They feel like most Americans don’t understand what it takes to do their jobs and take their products for granted; they feel like the government overregulates them with nonsensical and sometimes expensive rules; and they feel like their industry is constantly battling for some measure of respect from surrounding communities. I also think Clark, in particular, feels a sense of responsibility to maintain what his ancestors started way back in the late 1800s here in Colorado.
Has climate change impacted Palisade? Is it something farmers there think about or are concerned with?
Some of the old-timers I spoke with say that, anecdotally, they feel like temperatures are colder today than they were in the 1940s and 1950s. They say in those days they used to consistently get good cherry and apricot crops; today, they say those are rare. They also explain that in those days they didn’t have to use wind machines to help with frost protection, yet they still rarely had completely frozen crops. The thing most of the farmers I spoke with are particularly concerned about though is water. The vast majority of the water in the state of Colorado lives on the Western Slope, but much of it is sent to the Eastern Slope where the majority of the population resides. Farmers are extremely touchy about city folks taking all the water they say they need to grow the nation’s food.
In an essay in this month’s magazine titled “Preserving Our Natural Heritage,” John Fielder writes, “It’s critical to remember, though, that our landscapes are not static, but rather living, dynamic environments full of both the calm and fury of nature.” I wonder what that means for a place such as Palisade?
I hope in the coming decades we can find some balance between ag land and land development; I hope we can be innovative and thoughtful enough to figure out how to manage our water in ways that allow us to quench our population’s thirst without parching our farmland; I hope we can remind ourselves that someone has to grow the food we need to thrive, and that there are many Coloradans willing to do that job. Of course, as the peach growers always say, we are not really in control; Mother Nature is in control. If her fury alters the climate and makes it inhospitable for fruit growing, then that is what will happen regardless of what we do. I’ll tell ya, though: I’ll be really sad if that happens because there is nothing like the taste of a Palisade peach.
Chris Outcalt is 5280‘s associate editor. Find him on Twitter @chrisoutcalt.