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Harry Talbott, who gave his life to Palisade’s prized peaches, has died at age 86

The trailblazing orchardman bucked developers -- and his own parents -- to protect, preserve and promote Palisade’s fruit lands. His death leaves a pit in the industry.

Harry Talbott, the 86-year-old patriarch of Talbott Farms, died Sunday morning. He was a larger-than-life character whose influence was felt far beyond orchards -- in boardrooms, courtrooms, classrooms and church sanctuaries. (Colorado West Land Trust)
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Blossoms are popping out on the peach trees at Talbott Farms. Crews of workers are out thinning those buds. Preparations are underway to start up irrigation water. It is the same work that has been going on for more than a century on a fertile mesa above Palisade.

But this season, there is a giant hole in Colorado’s largest peach-growing operation.

Harry Talbott, the 86-year-old patriarch of Talbott Farms, died Sunday morning. A two-week-long cascade of health problems managed to bring down a giant in Colorado’s fruit industry, a larger-than-life character whose influence was felt far beyond orchards — in boardrooms, courtrooms, classrooms and church sanctuaries.

“Harry was a big thinker. He always thought there was more to life than what you see,” said Palisade Historical Society founder Priscilla Walker. “His impact on this area was phenomenal.”

Harry, as everyone knew him, is credited with preserving the fruit industry around Palisade where he grew up as a fourth-generation member of a pioneering family. His great-great grandfather rode in a wagon from Iowa to the Grand Valley in 1907 to settle on land that had the right combination of temperatures, soil, water and wind to produce excellent fruit.

Through the generations, Talbott Farms Inc. would grow to become the largest peach producing and packing operation in the state. Harry would become widely known as a trailblazer, a visionary and a savior of the peach industry that put Palisade on the map.

He would earn a master’s degree in environmental science, lead a teachers’ union strike, start a land trust, buck his own parents in court to keep major development out of orchard lands, travel the world as a sort of fruit ambassador, pioneer water-saving irrigation methods, champion healthy living and Baptist values, and swing from committed Democrat to far-right conservative.

He would also become infamous for the trail of witty puns and wise and wisecracked observations, dropped with a trademark impish grin everywhere he went.

“He could tell the same joke 100 times and each time it would be funny,” said his widow, Bonnie Talbott, who had been looking forward to a 63rd wedding anniversary with Harry next month.

In the weeks before his illness, she said Harry Talbott was still out zipping around the orchards he loved on an ATV loaded with shovels and tools for his irrigation work. He was hitting the gym two nights a week. He was still spending more than half days in the offices above the Talbott’s’ packing facility where 150 tons of fruit per day could be cleaned, boxed and sorted each day.

Visitors would drop in daily to pick his brain—to hear about his latest political findings or his never-ending health research.

On the former, he had come to believe that his country had a failed government and that strange things were happening, like U.S. flags with yellow fringe on the edges were signaling that America was under maritime law.

On the latter, he would go through spells of downing large quantities of buttermilk or adding Borax to his drinking water. He was always ready with advice for those who marveled at his robust octogenarian health. He would tell people one of his secrets was to “eat breakfast like a prince, lunch like a king and dinner like a pauper.”

“He would share so many stories. You never knew what kind of stories he was going to tell. It kept you on the edge of your seat,” said Karalyn Dorn, director of Palisade Child & Migrant Services, an organization that was started in the 1950s by Harry’s mother, Margaret Talbott, to help migrant workers and their families.

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Margaret was known around Palisade as a gentle, saintly woman who cared deeply about the plight of the farmworkers. Harry’s father, Harry Talbott Sr., was known to be strict and hardheaded.

Harry Jr. embodied both, according to his family and friends.

“He had an abrasive side. He was always strategizing and he was not shy in a conflict,” said Bruce Talbott, one of Harry’s four sons. “He was also always a good person with a good heart.”

Those competing traits led to some of Harry’s more storied accomplishments in life after he served a stint as a military police officer in the Army, earned his degrees, and came back to Palisade to toil in the family’s fruit operation while also working as a teacher and bemoaning the fact that the problem with American history is that it is taught by football coaches.

What he has referred to as his “wild-eyed radical” side came out while he was teaching biology at Central High School in nearby Clifton. Harry was one of five union negotiators who led a successful teacher walkout at every school in the district over disagreements with the school board.

That independent streak was cemented in the late 1970s when he and Bonnie fought his parents in court over their plans to bring a sewer line to East Orchard Mesa so the orchard lands could be developed with housing for oil shale workers.

At that time, an oil shale boom was expected to turn the entire Grand Valley into a housing-covered metropolis for the thousands of workers expected to move to the valley. The fruit lands around Palisade were slated to be sacrificed. Harry had sniffed out development interest a few years earlier and had served a stint on the Mesa County Planning Commission to help avert that.

“Developers told us to get out of the way. We told them where to go, and it wasn’t to Paradise,” Harry was fond of saying when he recalled those days.

“Had grandpa crossed the river with that sewer line, we wouldn’t have the fruit industry we have today,” said Bruce.

Bruce said his parents were leaders in the opposition and, for a year, Harry and Bonnie and Harry’s parents “went in and out opposite doors in the church.”

Talbott Farms orchards, pictured in spring of 2019, are protected in perpetuity by the land trust started by Harry Talbott. Now more than 70,000 acres of Western Slope agricultural lands are protected by conservation easements held by Colorado West Land Trust. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In 1980, to make sure his beloved orchard lands were protected in perpetuity, Harry founded the Mesa County Land Trust that would later grow to become the Colorado West Land Trust. That organization would result in more than 70,000 acres of agricultural lands being protected with conservation easements. The first three easements were on Talbott lands.

“He understood that the landscape around Palisade was incredibly unique and an irreplaceable asset,” said Colorado West Land Trust executive director Rob Bleiberg, who worked with Harry on land projects for nearly 25 years. “We all in the community should be thankful for Harry’s hard work, determination and refusal to accept that this landscape might be ruined.”

Not everyone was thankful in those days, but that didn’t bother Harry.

“We lost a lot of friends. Probably a lot of them deserved to be lost,” Harry said in a speech three years ago when he was inducted into the Farm Credit Agricultural Hall of Fame. “But here we are and they are not.”

Harry went on to help found the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts in the early 1990s.

“He was so passionate about things bigger than him,” Bleiberg said. “It was never about self-aggrandizement. So much of his work was about looking at the future of agriculture.”

Harry proved that he wasn’t satisfied with improving agriculture locally. He traveled to Hungary on a government Farmer-to-Farmer program where he shared his knowledge of fruit marketing. He and Bonnie talked and observed fruit farming on trips to Israel, the Czech Republic, Austria and Mexico. They hosted farmers and foreign students from around the world at their Palisade home.

Harry urged his sons and his daughter to see the world before they decided to settle down at Talbott Farms. They did. One went on to become an emergency room physician and gave Harry a running joke for life: “One son went bad. He became a doctor.”

At the end, it was his doctor son David who recognized that Harry had a serious problem with an abscessed wisdom tooth. That infection led to what was believed to be a minor stroke. Then, Harry developed what his family refers to as “the flu” even after he tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized with pneumonia in a COVID-isolation ICU room. Harry did not believe that COVID is anything more than a seasonal flu. Some of his family members still believe that.

With a bad case of pneumonia, he was still being feisty Harry. His sons bought him a cell phone so they could stay in touch. Bruce said he spent all his time calling friends and family members.

“He was calling and asking people to come and bust him out of there,” Bruce said.

The ringer on the phone was inadvertently shut off and Harry spent a day very agitated, believing that people weren’t wanting to talk to him—something that deeply upset him and had rarely happened to him since, as his mother liked to say, he was “born talking.”

The next day, he had a major stroke.

His family brought him home with hospice care and he died there in the midst of his family’s budding orchards.

Bruce said he left behind many in-the-works projects, including improvements he had been making at the Grand Mesa Baptist Church Camp he had championed his entire life. It was where he met Bonnie, had his first date with her on a midnight hike, and decided then and there he was going to marry her. They were just 15 and 16 at the time, so he waited five years to propose to her while they were working together at the camp.

Harry and Bonnie Talbott were married nearly 63 years. (Colorado West Land Trust)

Harry was also itching to get started on the irrigation—one of his favorite parts of farming. He was also eager, like the rest of the family, to move on from the most disastrous year the orchards had experienced in two decades. A freeze destroyed the majority of last season’s fruit crops.

Bruce said Harry’s loss will be felt up and down the Talbott organization that employs many of his five children, 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, as well as workers from Mexico who have been returning to Talbott Farms for many decades.

Mario Moreno who first came to work for the Talbotts from Mexico in 1995 and now works as foreman of the work crews, said he was already feeling the loss of Harry the day after his death.

“Nothing feels the same,” Moreno said. “He was always happy and smiling with the guys. Not to see that is going to be tough. I don’t know what to think with him gone.”

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