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Few things signal the start of summer quite like eating cherries right off the stem, straight out of the bag. Late June kicks off cherry season in Colorado, and the bright, heart-shaped fruit will continue to be picked from their trees and sold at farmers’ markets through the end of July. We spoke to Harrison Topp, co-owner of Topp Fruits with orchards in Hotchkiss and Peonia, to find out what makes cherries so delicious and uniquely challenging to grow in Colorado.
Colorado Cherries Are Delicious—But Finicky
A good cherry is brightly sweet with a touch of acidity and a tender, juicy bite around the inner pit. Topp Fruits grows three varieties—deep red Bing and Skeena cherries, as well as a golden, extra-sweet Rainier variety—that are picked in succession throughout the three- to four-week harvest season. The farm hopes to have the first harvest ready for the markets just in time for the Fourth of July (though farms in Palisade usually harvest their cherries a week or two earlier).
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While Colorado’s ample sunlight and high elevation helps produce delicious fruit, Topp says many growers in the state refrain from cultivating cherries because it’s not a reliable harvest. “We hope to get a crop probably three out of five years when it comes to cherries,” Topp says.
In the early spring, flowers bloom on cherry trees, bees pollinate the blossoms, and then immature cherries begin to develop as the trees’ petals fall. To guarantee a good crop, Topp Fruits brings in commercial bees to ensure its cherry varieties are sufficiently pollinated, since they do not self-pollinate (though some cherries do).
Cold is also another tricky factor to cherry growing. Unlike peaches or apples, the small fruit are not frost-resistant as they develop on the trees. According to Topp, a freeze or snow from the second week of April through the beginning of May could take out a whole crop of the fruit.
“It’s down to single, one to two degree temperature differences that could mean a crop or not a crop,” Topp says, noting that since heat rises, the temperature between the top and the bottom of their 10 to 12 foot tall trees (which they purposely grow taller than trees in other regions) can vary by three to five degrees—and those few degrees matter.
This year, Topp Fruits’ orchard experienced a freeze during a particularly vulnerable time, on the evenings of April 20 and 21, and lost some of its cherries developing on the bottom half of trees. Using wind machines and heaters, the farm fought to mitigate frosting conditions and save the fruit towards the upper half of the trees.
As a result of Topp Fruits’ efforts, this summer’s yields of the tangy, sweet fruit are still high. “This is probably the biggest crop we’ve had in years,” Topp says. He estimates to have 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of cherries per acre across five acres of trees, or about half a full crop.
According to Topp, the farm determines when its cherries are ripe for picking according to precise color and sugar content parameters, measuring the latter with Brix refractometers which calculate how much sugar is dissolved in the cherries’ juice. “I think one big thing about Colorado produce, particularly cherries, is we’re not a big industry. We sell almost all of our cherries locally,” Topp says. “I think that there are environmental things that make our cherries and our peaches great, but also I think that we’re able to pick them at [a] more opportune time to deliver a really high quality cherry, especially to farmers’ markets and things like that.”
While his cherries are excellent eaten fresh, Topp often recommends using them to make a clafoutis—a French dessert with a texture somewhere between a cake and a custard, which traditionally bakes the sweet fruit inside its batter to provide bursts of flavor. “It’s the thing we turn to when we’re tired of just eating it out of the bag,” Topp says.
Meet the Growers
Topp Fruits has been growing quality, organic fruit for the public for ten years, and comprises roughly 60 acres across its two orchards, five acres of which are cherry trees (about 3,000 cherry trees). The rest of the orchard is used to grow peaches, apples, and pears. The operation sadly lost its plum trees in 2021, but are hoping to bring back the stone fruit in the coming years, as well as a forthcoming crop of table grapes.
Topp describes starting the farm as a slow burn, as he wasn’t raised in agriculture and is a first-generation grower. Having grown up in Evergreen, Topp moved away for college where he studied film, television, and anthropology at New York University. After graduating, he worked on a farm in western North Carolina for a film project, connecting with agriculture so much that he decided to move back to Colorado instead of moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film.
Upon his return to Colorado in 2013, Topp started farming as a hobby on a 15-acre orchard plot in Peonia, which his family had purchased when he left for college. After years spent tending to the fruit trees while working other jobs, he realized that though he enjoyed farming for fun, it could be more than that. In 2018, his girlfriend, and now wife and co-owner of the operation, Stacia Cannon, moved from Longmont to western Colorado, and together they scaled the operation into a full-time business by expanding to include orchards in Hotchkiss and Peonia—and the farm has been growing ever since.
As they have cultivated what Topp describes as a constellation of orchards to provide more fruit to their communities, the couple continues to run the farm in a way that achieves the right economies of scale, while retaining its high-quality touch, equitable employment practices, and intentional farming methods. “We really are a farm that tries to do things right,” Topp says. “We try to balance the business needs with making sure we’re really good land stewards, making sure we’re always thinking about conservation, building soil carbon, [and] caring for our resources.”
Where to Buy Cherries This Season
Topp Fruits sells its cherries and other seasonal tree-ripened fruit weekly at the Boulder Farmers Market on Wednesdays, the Telluride Farmers’ Market on Fridays, and Longmont and Denver’s City Park farmers’ market on Saturdays. The farm is also a primary fruit provider for several small-scale food shares, including Lakewood’s Common Name Farm CSA and East Denver Food Hub. Special orders for cherries and other fruit can be placed by reaching out through the farm’s website.
10457 3100 Road, Hotchkiss