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When Scott High realized that he’d lost the majority of this year’s peach crop—about a million pounds of fruit—he knew that his cherries were wiped out, too. The co-owner of High Country Orchards and Vineyards in Palisade was among the many Western Slope farmers who tried to prevent their fruit trees from succumbing to a hard freeze on April 13, when the nightly temperature hit lows of 19 degrees in the North Fork and Grand valleys. “We had a really, really cold day,” High says.
Frigid temperatures are deadly for budding peach, cherry, and apricot trees, especially those varieties that are early season bloomers. “Our farmers were outside all night, running air and burning within the orchards, trying to keep the heat up a little bit to prevent a hard freeze,” says Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg. “Most were not successful because it was so cold for so long, and we’re at a time in the season when the trees are budding out and highly susceptible to freeze.”
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While hard numbers haven’t yet been released, anecdotal reports from local farmers indicate a 90 to 95 percent crop loss for peaches, and similar numbers for cherries and apricots, according to Greenberg. The freeze led Greenberg and Governor Jared Polis to request a disaster declaration from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to secure federal aid for the region’s orchards. But despite the devastation, Front Rangers will still be able to find a juicy Palisade peach come July.
High says a block of peach trees in his 96-acre orchard near the Colorado River, where the temperature is a bit warmer, survived—though that block likely won’t produce enough fruit to open the farm’s processing and packaging facility.
Bruce Talbott, co-owner of 550-acre Talbott Farms, also in Palisade, estimates that he lost about six to seven million pounds of peaches, but could still harvest about one million pounds from his surviving trees. “There will still be peaches up and down the Front Range, but what there won’t be are the $.99 per pound sales at Safeway and King Soopers,” says Talbott. “The quality of the fruit should stay the same, and the peaches might even grow larger because there is less fruit on the trees.”
For Talbott, one of the worst parts about losing the crop was having to lay off his seasonal farm workers, including 42 individuals who come to Colorado on H-2A visas; they tend his fruit trees every year and know the farm like it’s their own. “They’re like family,” Talbott says. “We haven’t vacated a contract in 20 years, but we had to send them home.”
Though the peach harvest will be far less bountiful this summer, there’s still plenty of work ahead for Western Slope farmers. High was excited to see that the orchard’s wine grape vines are showing signs of life and he hopes to hire a couple dozen H2-A farm workers to harvest the grapes in late August for Colterris Winery. Meanwhile, Talbott, who also produces wine and apple cider, thinks his wine grapes and apple trees are still in good shape.
Talbott and High both mentioned that occasional crop loss, whether due to frost, wind, or drought, is part of being a farmer, so they are not discouraged. “The last big freeze was in 1999,” High says. “Every 20 years, I can take it.”
Since these stone fruit crop losses comes at a time when Colorado farmers are already facing dire challenges related to the pandemic, Agriculture Commissioner Greenberg says that it’s more important than ever for consumers to participate in the local agriculture economy. “While farmers are wrestling with one blow after the next, any way folks can buy local and support farmers and ranchers is going to make a big difference in this time.”