One of the state’s most critical economic drivers—the $41 billion a year ag industry—has a more profound connection to Colorado’s land than maybe any other commercial sector. It’s a get-your-hands-dirty, derive-value-from-the-earth, play-nice-with-Mother-Nature relationship that, in the case of those who grow the state’s iconic Palisade peaches, has roots creeping back over a century. By Lindsey B. Koehler Photography by Aaron Colussi
Sunlight filters through a canopy of slender leaves, fashioning rainbows in the mist. Water droplets from irrigation sprinklers saturate the air in the orchard, filling it with the heavy perfume of peaches. Because he’s been hopping on and off his “horse”—a blue Polaris Sportsman ETX four-wheeler—to check in with his picking crews, the bottom few inches of Dennis Clark’s jeans are dark with moisture. If his socks are sodden, he doesn’t seem to notice. He’s too busy telling his 18 pickers “muy despacito,” or “easy does it,” with the quick-to-bruise fruit. Walking down the rows of trees, as he does every day during harvest, Clark shows each man what he means. He plucks a piece of fruit and rubs his fingers over its fuzzy skin. Clark brings it to his nose, inhales, and smiles almost imperceptibly. This peach—just like the thousands of other golden Glohavens hanging all around him—is perfect.
Following a late-spring freeze in Palisade that led to a lackluster harvest last year, Clark’s nearly 100 acres of peach trees are producing a first-rate crop in mid-August 2014. The early-to-ripen Garnet Beauties have come off the trees by now, as have the ubiquitous Red Havens. The Suncrests, known for their juiciness, need another few days before they’re ripe. To the uninitiated, things look…well…peachy.
Verbalizing that fact, however, is tantamount to a jinx in Clark’s world. The expression in the 52-year-old, fifth-generation Palisade peach farmer’s blue eyes says good fruit doesn’t always mean a good year. It could hail, he says. It could start raining and not stop for days. It could…he stops himself and takes a second to check his cellphone. Then, in a tone that suggests he’s endured more than he cares to discuss right now, he says, “Well, a lot of things could happen.”
Moments later, Clark’s phone rings. His face says it’s not the call he was hoping for. Instead, it’s Bruce Talbott, from just up the road on East Orchard Mesa. Like Clark Family Orchards, Talbott Farms has been in the local peach-growing business for generations. With 306 acres of peach orchards, the Talbott family—Harry C. Talbott and his four sons, Bruce, Charlie, David, and Nathan, are business partners—is pleased with the season’s bounty as well, save for one major hitch. Bruce, who is in charge of production and the management of the orchards, has 400,000 pounds of ready-to-be-picked fruit—and not enough manpower to harvest it all. With wholesale prices hovering between $1.05 and $1.30 per pound, not being able to get the peaches off the trees is an expensive problem. He’s called Clark to see if he can spare any of his pickers or if he knows of anyone local who’s looking for work. Clark tells Bruce he can’t get by without his full crew.
As he drops his phone back into the breast pocket of his button-down, Clark shakes his head. “If there were any possible way for me to help him,” Clark says, “I would’ve. Having a perishable product is tough. Believe me, I know.”
Somewhere near the middle of orchard number 34, a plat of land atop East Orchard Mesa, 80-year-old Harry C. Talbott selects a sizeable peach from a full bin of fruit. “We call that a sink peach,” he says, his eyes twinkling in anticipation of his punch line. “It’s so juicy you’ll need to eat it over the sink.”
With that, Harry takes the peach, pulls a well-used pocketknife from his jeans, and cuts a slice. The fruit is juicy, but it’s the candylike taste of a Palisade peach that makes it remarkable. Pitted against peaches grown in California, Georgia, and South Carolina, the Colorado-grown fruit is worth about twice as much per ton (whether that can be explained by economics or the sublime flavor is up for debate). Really, though, it’s the Palisade peach’s hold over Coloradans that matters. People—many of whom couldn’t make a peach tree fruit or point out Palisade on a map—obsess over these peaches and look forward to their arrival at local grocers each summer.
The nimble octogenarian, who has a gray goatee and a bald head, tosses the rest of the peach on the ground before pivoting in his running shoes. He makes his way down a row of trees and begins to fold any fruitless branches in half to allow sunlight to penetrate the lower parts of the tree. Harry handles the flora like a mother holds her second- or third-born: gently but without apprehension.
His lack of hesitation isn’t surprising. Timid isn’t an adjective one would use when describing Harry, or any of his four sons. To varying degrees, they all exhibit a charming bravado that explains, in part, why Talbott Farms has become the largest producer of peaches in a state that’s routinely a top-10 peach producer nationally.
It’s unclear why anyone would’ve ever thought to plant a peach tree here—until you see Palisade. With Colorado’s well-earned reputation for long, snowy winters and high elevation, it’s unclear why anyone would’ve ever thought to plant a peach tree here—until you see Palisade. The Colorado River begins as a trickle in the northwest corner of Rocky Mountain National Park. It babbles and gushes its way southwest, but by the time the river reaches the Grand Valley and Palisade, it has smoothed into a wide, flat-water flow that meanders through a semiarid landscape most would be hard-pressed to identify as Colorado. The peaks of the state’s alpine skiing scene are absent; instead, the largest flattop mountain in the world, the lush Grand Mesa, looms to the southeast while the stark Book Cliff formation—a corrugated, dirty blond mesa to the northwest—stands watch over a 12-mile-wide, 35-mile-long swath of fertile valley below.
A primordial amalgam of sand, clay, silt, and decaying organic matter lines the valley floor in a thick layer of plant-it-and-it-will-grow loam. The nourishing waters of the river drain well through the soil, and 285 days of sunlight each year supply the energy for photosynthesis. But it’s the local microclimate—an atypically temperate area known as a banana belt—that, combined with the topo-graphy and warming winds, makes temperatures at 4,700 feet moderate enough for fruit to flourish. More than 130 years ago, when the U.S. government forced the Ute Indians off the land to allow white settlers to mine seams of bituminous coal and plant rows of cherry, apricot, pear, apple, and peach trees, they couldn’t have scientifically described a microclimate, but they recognized the area surrounding what would become the town of Palisade in 1904 for what it was: a fruit grower’s paradise.
The cool nights, hot days, nutrient-rich soil, and warming winds would create peaches of unmatched flavor. At least, that’s what James A. Clark believed when he planted some of the valley’s first peach trees in 1897, paving the way not only for future generations of his family, but also for peach growers like Joe Yager, who arrived in the Grand Valley in 1907 and whose granddaughter Margaret married a local cattle rancher cum fruit grower named Harry A. Talbott.
Raising peaches is not for those with feeble constitutions; it requires the rare combination of a gambler’s disposition and a strong work ethic. The Clarks, Yagers, Talbotts, and dozens of other turn-of-the-century Palisade growers built dams, constructed irrigation canals, engineered water pumping systems, brought the railroad through town, founded agricultural co-ops, and later brokered a market order, which allowed growers to legally band together to help one another.
Today’s growers raise fruit in much the same way as their predecessors. Yes, modern sprinkler systems mean effortless irrigation, but the water still comes from canal systems and dam projects completed in the early 1900s. Yes, large wind machines can substitute for the warming breezes when they fail to blow, but if Mother Nature whips up a doozy of a late-spring frost, there’s still little anyone can do to save a crop. And yes, assembly lines can speed up the shipping process, but every peach is still handpicked. The truth is, the fruit-growing business hasn’t gotten easier since James A. Clark first put shovel to earth more than a century ago. In many ways, the job has become more difficult.
From the Conoco station in downtown Palisade, it’s a short drive up East Orchard Mesa to Talbott Farms’ home base. Although the farm has a small fruit stand where it sells baskets of peaches and some of the apple cider it brews on-site, there is nothing quaint about the setup. Outside the adjacent “shed”—ag-speak for the building where packing and shipping operations take place—there are semitrucks from Safeway and other major grocers backed up to the loading dock. Inside the shed, a flurry of activity creates a whirring, beeping, banging din. After pickers deliver fruit from the orchards to the shed, a mechanized packing line washes, brushes, and sanitizes the fruit; the peaches then whiz downstream where assembly-line employees sort out fruit that are too ripe for shipping or too blemished for selling and arrange them in boxes concordant with their sizes and weights. Boxes of ready-to-go peaches are then stacked on wooden pallets, bar-coded, plastic-wrapped, and forklifted into the cooler to await a truck.
Unlike the real estate used by many fruit-growing businesses in Palisade—where 10 acres of orchards is considered a decent-size production and can gross as much as $50,000 a year—Talbott Farms’ 306 acres (plus another 270 acres’ worth of fruit from growers who contract with Talbott Farms to sell their peaches) is giant. Fortunately, the Talbott family’s long history in the area means there are upward of 55 relatives who, at one time or another, have all worked in the fields or in the shed. Currently, there are 19 family members on payroll. The 80 remaining positions—Talbott Farms employs about 100 people during harvest—are more difficult to fill. “We used to rely on H-2A visas, which allow foreign nationals to work ag jobs on a temporary basis,” says Charlie Talbott, who, as president and CEO, is in charge of business management, finances, and marketing and therefore rarely roots around in the orchards. “But the bureaucracy, paperwork, rules, and fees got to be so outrageous, so completely inane, we’ve tried to avoid using them over the past two years.”
That decision had consequences in 2014. Without H-2A visa workers to fill picking positions, the Talbotts had to find other laborers. Few locals want those jobs; even fewer Americans want to make a cross-country trip to toil so strenuously. Unsurprisingly, the Talbotts’ hunt did not yield enough manpower. On the mid-August day that Bruce Talbott called Dennis Clark for help, Talbott Farms was looking at the possibility of significant losses due to its inability to get the fruit off the trees before it became too ripe to pack and ship. Fortunately for the Talbotts, the rains came. Foul weather is typically a hindrance during harvest, but cloudy days in August helped slow the ripening process and spread the picking season out enough to avoid considerable shortfalls. It was a near miss in a business in which three months of income must last all year.
Charlie Talbott knows not to take this year’s reprieve for granted. One year, good-looking peaches from the orchard were inexplicably turning completely black after running through the packing line. “We were losing entire semitruck loads of product,” Charlie says. Days later, the Talbotts determined the problem: The packing line’s brushes had been set to be gentle with the fruit, and instead of removing contaminants from the peaches’ skin, the scrubbers were spreading them over the fruit’s entire surface. “This happened more than 22 years ago,” Charlie says, his voice catching as he relays the story, “but it scared me because I thought my brothers and I had destroyed the business my family built over the previous century just a few years after taking it over.”
Today, Charlie Talbott is more accustomed to the variability of his industry. In fact, all the Talbotts understand that Mother Nature’s whims are part of the secret-handshake deal they’ve made with her. They will use her water conservatively, tend to her soil in a way that doesn’t offend her, and help place conservation easements on her land to save it from development and drilling, if she will, in return, limit the crop-killing spring frosts, forgive some of their human mistakes, and allow them to continue making a very nice living off her bounty.
The man who jumps out of the white truck in front of Clark Family Orchards’ shed is sporting suspenders, jeans, a ratty T-shirt, a tweed hat, sunglasses, and a long, unkempt beard. He is the Sheridan, Wyoming, version of ZZ Top. He and a fellow trucker have made the eight-and-a-half-hour drive to Palisade to pick up a load of peaches. With the help of Clark’s picking crew, they quickly stack more than 360 boxes of peaches—along with 30 boxes of Clark’s pears—into their refrigerated trailer, say a quick thank you to both Dennis and his wife, Staci, and hop back into the cab.
No money changes hands. No signature is required. “We do a lot of business on a handshake and a wink,” Clark says, with a smile. “These guys usually sell the product over the weekend up in Wyoming and wire the money to me after that.” Clark deals with a lot of independent fruit peddlers, whom he calls “two percenters,” who purchase fruit from an orchard and then sell it at roadside stands or farmers’ markets at a markup. They aren’t huge orders for Clark—a grocery store semi can hold up to 1,700 boxes of fruit—but he can count on them as a steady source of income, something the grower is grateful for at a time when large grocers are less and less easy to deal with.
Not only do chain grocers have different standards and requirements in place for produce—some want certain types of inspections, some want specific kinds of topical disinfectants, and almost all require the unblemished, unbruised, reddish-gold perfection of a so-called “number one” peach—but they have also become less local over time. Across America, small regional grocers such Piggly Wiggly and Randall’s Food Markets have been gobbled up by larger grocers. Even moderately sized grocers are being purchased by bigger companies; Safeway, for example, was acquired by Albertsons in July for $9.2 billion. This, according to Clark, can make communication about the sale of a highly perishable product nothing short of exasperating.
Not all that long ago, Clark could pick up the phone and speak directly with a store’s produce manager in charge of purchase orders. Five minutes and a verbal agreement later, Clark had a place to send his ripening peaches. Today, that’s not often the case. “I can have peaches ready to go,” Clark says, “but I can’t seem to get the right person on the phone. Five days will go by, my fruit is past ripe, I’m out that income, and then I get a call back saying the grocer wants peaches. At that point, I may not have peaches that are ready.”
That is exactly the position Clark has found himself in this year. Although he wouldn’t call it a bumper crop, 2014’s harvest is the best he’s had in years. But the orders aren’t coming in. He has beautiful fruit he can’t seem to sell. Unlike Talbott Farms, where the responsibilities of running the business are dispersed amongst a large staff, Dennis and Staci—with a modest amount of help from their two daughters and maybe an employee or two depending on the season—are it. And both are busy from dawn to dusk with orchard and fruit-stand operations. The stress is visible on Clark’s face. He knows the consequences of a bad year; in 1989, after a complete freeze-out of their crop, he and Staci had to get jobs off the farm—digging the Highline Canal—just to make ends meet.
It’s understandable, then, why Clark is putting so much stock into an in-person meeting he had earlier in the day with some King Soopers representatives. Smartly dressed, with clipboards in hand, the two men from the Kroger-owned but Denver-headquartered grocery chain strolled through an orchard just behind Clark’s shed—and were clearly impressed by the fruit. Throughout the day, Clark has obsessively been checking his smartphone for an order. As the hours tick by, his strain and panic intensify.
Clark tries to have faith in what he holds to be a high-quality product, one he learned how to nurture from his father. Larry, who had his son working in the shed as young as three years old, believed that, in the peach business, a superior crop started with pruning. That’s why Clark doesn’t pay someone to snip his youngest trees; he does the work himself. There is, after all, an art and a philosophy to the practice. “You can’t get greedy,” Clark says. “You need to be aggressive, need to trim the tree pretty far back to give the fruit the right spacing to grow without rubbing against other fruit or the branches. If you leave too much wood thinking it’ll give you more fruit to sell, you’ve made a greedy mistake.”
Neither Clark nor his dad—who died last year—has ever been satisfied with a second-rate peach. That lapse can leave a grower with bushels of peaches—but few of them may meet the standards of a grocery-store-bound number one peach. Instead, chafed or over-ripe fruits are sold as “number twos,” usually at farmers’ markets. “There’s nothing wrong with number twos,” Clark says with a shrug, but neither Clark nor his dad—who died last year—has ever been satisfied with a second-rate peach.
In fact, in 2005, Clark, who had been packing his fruit on a line like Talbott Farms’ for years, made the decision to field-pack his peaches. The choice had financial upsides—Clark would no longer need packing line workers because his picking crews would fill the boxes in the field—but there were implications for his peaches as well. “Our fruit can stay on the trees longer,” Clark says, “because it doesn’t have to be hard enough to endure a line. That means it’s sweeter, softer, and ready to be eaten when a consumer picks one up.”
That is, if he can get his fruit to the consumer. Which, by 2:30 p.m. that afternoon, is looking unlikely. As 400 more boxes of peaches arrive at the shed, Clark does some mental math and then scribbles incomprehensibly in a notebook. The peaches are piling up. He checks his phone and then, without a word, walks outside.
When he re-enters the shed a few minutes later, Clark walks over to Staci and tells her the order came in. King Soopers wants “several” truck loads. The tension melts out of Clark’s lean frame. With a relieved smile, he says, “Well, that helps us out—for a few weeks, anyway.”