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Peach growers are expecting an all-time bumper crop on the Western Slope, but there’s one problem

Weather, moisture and bee activity lined up perfectly for the best peach season in years, but with visa applications already set in stone, growers need a basketful of workers.

Peach orchard workers Jaime Perez, left, and Luis Hernandez thin fruit from trees at Talbott Farms in Palisade. This work is typically done by bad weather, but this year conditions have been nearly perfect meaning culling must be done by hand. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The plink and plop of tiny green peaches hitting the ground at a Talbott Farms orchard is the sound of exceptionally good news for Colorado fruit lovers.

This season there have been no damaging freezes, no punishing winds and no bruising hail on the more than 500 acres of fruit trees at the Talbotts’ orchards above Palisade. The temperatures and moisture that favor a good fruit crop have lined up in perfect order and amounts since deep winter. The right weather cards have been dealt to the pollinating bees.

It has been that kind of a serendipitous season at nearly all the thousands of acres of peach trees growing on the Western Slope. Even the touchier fruits like apricots, pears and cherries have come through this nail-biting time of year largely unscathed except for some spotty hail damage. It is such a good year that apricots — the most damage-prone crop in the state – are expected to have a healthy yield. More years than not, apricots are totally wiped out.

Tiny peaches culled from trees in Talbott Farms orchards in Palisade. Workers are removing the extra fruit to make sure the mature peaches are large and juicy, and spaced along branches so the trees are not damaged. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This year has been so perfectly tailored for fruit production it seems as if farmers, rather than Mother Nature, are calling the shots.

“Yes, this is the best year. This is better than any other year here,” said Talbott Farms foreman Mario Moreno as the steady drum of walnut-sized green peaches plunked to the ground around his feet. Moreno has been tending to fruit crops around Palisade since 1996.

No damage to fruit trees means that 50 or so farmworkers are doing the thinning work at Talbott’s that a freeze, hail or big wind might do in a dicier year. The workers are in the orchards now for 11-hour days, and their hands fly as they hurry to thin the fruit-laden branches by mid-June. Without that culling, the fruit would not be as large, juicy and appealing to consumers, and the trees would suffer from a production overload.

David Sterle, a research associate at the Colorado State University Extension Western Colorado Research Center, said unofficial grower reports filtering into his office tell him that this is an exceptional year for most of the fruit in the Grand and North Fork valleys, the two areas where most of Colorado’s fruit is grown.

Weather conditions on the Western Slope of Colorado have been virtually perfect, which means bumper crops of peaches, cherries and apricots are forecast from orchards including those at Talbott Farms in Palisade. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Warming fans only turned on once

“This year is pretty much as perfect as you could ask for,” he said.

The year-to-write-home-about began in deep winter when there were no extremely cold temperatures. In early January – at just the right time — the coldest temperatures began to level off. But there were no early periods of too-warm weather that would cause trees to make buds too soon and make those buds more susceptible to freezing.

When to expect Western Slope fruit

  • Earliest peach varieties — June 28
  • Most popular peach varieties — mid July
  • End of peach harvest — mid September
  • Cherries — early June
  • Apricots — July
  • Pears — August
  • Plums — August
  • Nectarines — mid July
  • Apples — July through October

Sterle said at the ag research station he only had to run the protective wind machines one night when the temperatures dropped to 26.8 degrees F. That was on April 12. Normally, by that time, the bladed fans would have roared into use multiple times to help keep the temperatures up around the trees.

Claire Talbott at C&R Farms pointed out that the temperatures stayed optimal for bee busyness this spring – above 50 degrees – and the winds weren’t disruptive around the period when it was time to pollenize the peach trees. The bee benefits weren’t quite as good when it came to cherries. Chilly temperatures and rain around the time the cherry trees bloomed meant bees were not as busy in the orchards.

Brief and spotty hail storms pounded trees in a few areas. But even that was not all bad. At Aloha Organic Fruit and Morton’s Orchards, owner Heather Morton Burtness said the quick-moving hail storms put some dings and dents in portions of the cherry and apricot crops, and a lesser amount in the peaches, “but we should still have a good harvest. Some of it will just be a little cosmetically challenged.”

Colorado’s fruit country has actually been in a three-year cycle of good, better and best.

The Grand Valley area hasn’t had an awful year for fruit since 2015, when everything that went right this year went wrong. The peach harvest yielded only about 11,000 tons that year. Last year, the yield was more than 16,000 tons of peaches.

There is no overall projection for this year’s crop yet. But Bruce Talbott said Talbott Farms anticipates upping its 6 million pound 2018 peach harvest to 7.5 million to 8 million pounds this year.

“We are digging in for the long haul to prepare for harvesting that much,” he said. “But we are relaxed now. We much prefer to be dealing with the demands of a big crop.”

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This big year has meant Bruce Talbott was reached last week in Florida, where he had taken his family for a rare spring vacation. His brother, Charlie Talbott, was reached as he was getting off a plane in Phoenix. He was there partly to deliver the Grand Valley’s good harvest news at a fruit-growers conference.

But growers aren’t just off soaking up sun while the peaches ripen: bumper crops can also bring a bumper crop of headaches when it comes to finding enough workers to deal with all that fruit. Larger growers like Talbotts rely on H-2A temporary agricultural workers who come on visas from Mexico and Central America to prune, thin and harvest. But estimates for numbers of needed workers must be submitted before a crop is projected.

Diego Dominguez culls fruit from peach trees at Talbott Farms in Palisade. He and other workers are removing tiny fruits to make sure the yields are good without harming the trees. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Another 14 pairs of hands would really help

Moreno said he could use another 14 workers right now during the furious thinning process.

Procuring H2-A workers is costly and time-consuming so smaller growers like Morton Burtness forego using visa workers. They end up scrambling to find local workers in a full-crop year. Such a crop requires twice as many thinners and pickers, she said.

Consumers, who are so eager they are already calling the Colorado Department of Agriculture asking when peaches will be ready (the answer is mid-July), may find themselves the beneficiaries of a bumper crop at fruit stands across the state this summer.  Bruce Talbott said he expects prices on national-distribution contracts to remain steady, but fruit-stand prices to experience “some downward pressure.”

Wendy White, a marketing specialist with Colorado Proud, said she will be rolling the good fruit news into the promotions for the 20th anniversary of the state’s Colorado Proud program. That program promotes local products.

“Our customers will really be clamoring for those peaches,” she said.

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