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A bitter freeze and coronavirus have sprouted big problems for Palisade’s peach season

Growers on Colorado’s Western Slope knew they had a market problem because of COVID-19. But killing freezes last week put an end to their worrying about too much fruit this summer and now some are wondering if they’ll even have enough.

Dennis Clark of Clark Family Orchards in Palisade surveys the damage to the blossoms in his Cresthaven peach orchard on April 16, 2020. Clark said the temperature in the peach orchard plunged to about 25 degrees three days before, killing a large percentage of the blooms. Cresthaven peaches are fairly frost hardy, though, so he may still have some that survive. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Palisade-area fruit growers were out in their orchards the frigid night of April 13 and into the next morning, frantically cranking up wind machines, turning on irrigation water, and lighting burn barrels in last-ditch efforts to save crops from a bud-killing Canadian cold front that crept across Colorado’s premier peach country.

But none of those measures could thwart temperatures that dropped into the low to mid 20s. It was just too cold – colder than it had been in April in 21 years — and the area’s famed peaches were at a vulnerable state of budding.

Dennis Clark, whose family has been growing peaches in the area since 1897, said he wishes now that he had just slept through that awful night rather than futilely trying to save his crop.

Dennis Clark opens a peach blossom damaged by a heavy frost few days earlier to show how the tiny ovule inside has turned gray. The inside of a healthy blossom is green in color. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We should have just gone to bed and got up in the morning and wept,” Clark said as he split open pink peach blossoms with a fingernail, one after another, revealing the dead, brown nubbins of peaches inside before flicking them into the grass under the tidy rows of well-tended trees.

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In the week since that freeze (and several nights of lesser freezes that followed), the pink promise of a healthy fruit crop has shriveled and turned brown. The dead buds have been dropping off. Many trees look bare when they should be fringed in flowers.

Growers have been getting out in these skeletal orchards to assess the damage. There is no one-size-fits-all number for the amount of fruit lost. Loss differs orchard block by orchard block because of differences in elevation and location.

The Bookcliffs that tower over Palisade to the north deliver varying degrees of radiant heat to orchards. DeBeque Canyon on the east end of Palisade also plays a part. It compresses and funnels warm air into the orchard country. The effect of that heated air, historically called the “million-dollar wind,” lessens as it moves across the Palisade area. Cold tends to settle more harshly in some of the dips in the overall contours of the fruit lands.

Peach varieties can also affect damage profiles. Some are more resistant to cold. But there are none that can withstand temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit for long. On April 13 and 14, the temperatures ranged from 23 degrees to 26 degrees in different parts of the Palisade orchard country. In nearby Grand Junction, the National Weather Service recorded a low of 19 degrees – a freeze that hadn’t been matched since 1933.

The Bookcliffs above Herman Produce peach orchard near Palisade on Nov. 18, 2019. The cliffs can help warm the orchards with radiant heat. (Ed Kosmicki, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As growers have been fanning out through the orchards, snapping off limbs, and looking inside buds in the past week, they have found cherries and apricots are pretty much goners. Apples aren’t severely hurt. Pears have fared the best. Peach crop losses range from half a crop to total destruction. 

“It’s just going to be the opposite of last year when we were awash in peaches,” said Trent Cunningham of Cunningham Orchards. “This year, peaches will be pretty rare and probably more expensive.”

Cunningham added a comment that he was a little loath to verbalize: “Part of me wants to say that if we had to have a freeze maybe this would be the better year for it.”

That brings the pandemic into the loss equation. Would peach growers be having to dump a glut of peaches in a year when social distancing is part of the strange-new-world response to a virus that has sickened and killed millions around the world? 

Fruit growers at this point have no idea what kind of market there will be for their produce. Will farmers’ markets be viable? Will there be customers at their fruit stands? Will their restaurant orders be way down? Will commercial orders drop off significantly?

MORE: Colorado growers face “risk like we have never faced before” as coronavirus puts up labor walls

“I believe this thing (the coronavirus) is going to get cleared up pretty soon,” said Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms, one of the largest fruit-growing operations in the state. “There will be peaches when we come off this coronavirus thing. But if people don’t have any money, they might be saying ‘I love peaches, but I might have to make do with apples and bananas.’”

As a sign of how bad Talbott’s got hit, this week he is letting 42 of his normally coveted H-2A Mexican farmworkers go because there is no work for them. Normally they would be thinning blossoms, doing weed control and spraying trees at this time. Talbott will make do this spring with his year-around crew. Before three weeks are up, and the government deadline for harvest-time workers is past, he will have to figure out how much fruit is left, and decide whether he will need to bring in any of his scheduled H-2A workers for the harvest.

“There are so many unknowns. We’ve never been here before. We’ve been beaten up before, but never like what’s happening this year,” Talbott said.

MORE: In the age of “go back where you came from,” Palisade carries on tradition of thanking orchard workers before they leave

At Clark Family Orchards, Dennis Clark bent fingers down on both hands as he counted other tough years due to freezes. But this is the first to twine frigid spring weather with a global pandemic.

“There was ’89 when we had bad freezes in February, and ’91 was bad, and ’99 there was a freeze on the 28th of April. It was terribly bad. They were all bad years. In ’95 and ’96 we had half crops,” he said. “In 2016 we were just starting the harvest and hail beat up everything on the north side of the road. It was a beautiful crop before it got hit by hail.”

Clark Family Orchards in Palisade operates a fruit stand during the summer months through which they sell a variety of homegrown produce and fruit that they’ve raised on their 120-acre farm. Clark’s normally produces more than 1 million pounds of peaches each year. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Clarks, the Talbotts and other multi-generational farms have also weathered the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, along with the market fluctuations and the blights and the bug infestations that can decimate crops. They have survival skills honed by six and seven generations of orchardmen and women who have faced every variety of seasonal uncertainty, and done so with regularity.

They are trudging into this year in well-worn boots knowing they have to cut out any unnecessary spending.

The Talbotts added a tap room on to their fruit market and packing shed two years ago to sell hard cider and wine. The Clarks built and opened a large barn-like wedding venue a year ago. There won’t be any expenditures of those types this year. Those hoped-for added moneymakers have suddenly turned into potential losses. The tap room won’t be crowded for concerts. The wedding venue has 40 ceremonies scheduled, but it is up in the air how many will actually take place.

“This year the crystal ball is mighty foggy,” Clark said as he looked across the road to the barn that held so much promise until the pandemic hit.

At Rancho Durazno, a relatively newer farm that is snug up to DeBeque Canyon, a lessened freeze left about half a crop – and a glass-half-full attitude.

“This is a pretty big blow economically for any farm, but it is an expected part of farming,” said Gwen Cameron, one of the owners. “We are doing pretty good in a bad year, just hunkering down and tightening our belts.”

Beside the freeze and the pandemic, growers still have other things to worry about with the fruit they do have left. Bugs, blight and, particularly hail, are not out of the picture until the peaches are plucked from the trees and in boxes.   

 Talbott doesn’t even want to think about all that right now.

“I can just say to our customers that we are not going to have the bounty we usually have,” he said. “And we are looking forward to 2021.”

Rising Sun