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Mother Nature sucker punched a Western Slope peach orchard. Now the farm is putting trees up for adoption.

The 2021 peach crop in Palisade is forecast to be good. But orchards to the south, like Ela Family Farms near Hotchkiss, are trying everything to survive after a tree-killing fall freeze.

Shirley Ela, 96. inspects peach trees at Ela Family Farms near Hotchkiss. The trees typically would be heavy with blossoms this time of year, but a devastating freeze in October killed most of the 114-year-old organic orchard. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When Steve Ela walks through orchards that are usually blossoming with promise this time of year, he comes up with one word to describe his feelings: Sad.

This week, he is also beginning to feel a tinge of hope as he starts to rebuild a 114-year-old weather-devastated fruit operation on Rogers Mesa near Hotchkiss with the innovative help of far-flung fruit fans. They are “adopting” the baby peach trees he is putting in the ground.

For a donation to the farm, contributors will have their names dangling from saplings. They will receive periodic photographs of “their” trees so they can celebrate height gains, first blossoms and inaugural fruits.

More than 300 people have already signed up to parent trees in a 3-acre orchard plot. Their support is helping to keep the farm going in a year when Ela’s customers will have to buy their peaches elsewhere. Peach farms around Palisade are expected to have a good year with as much as 80% of a normal year’s output predicted. Most orchards in the North Fork Valley are predicted to have a fraction of their normal crops.    

“It is very hard to see so much devastation”

Ela Family Farms’ historically bad season — and the need for sapling sponsorships   ̶  came from a sucker punch Mother Nature aimed at Rogers Mesa in October.

A string of unusually warm days followed by a nearly 70-degree overnight plunge to 3 degrees killed or seriously damaged most of the trees in Ela’s organic orchards. The cold that tends to skip and settle over different orchards in neighboring areas also severely damaged other fruit trees around the Hotchkiss area as well as a few around Palisade.  

The cold hit trees already weakened from a similar damaging drastic temperature drop in October 2019.

Ela knew the dead leaves drooping from the branches portended disaster because the leaves couldn’t do their normal important fall job of moving nutrients to the tree̶. He clung to a sliver of hope, but he, his partner, Regan Choi, and his 96-year-old mother, Shirley Ela, spent a nervous pandemic winter dreading what was to come.

When Ela finally walked his 100 acres of certified organic orchards in March to assess the damage to the 45,000 trees, he cut into branches and found dead brown wood confirming his worst fears. 

A mere scattering of blossoms on surviving trees in recent weeks put the exclamation point on the disaster.

Steve Ela, right, works with a crew to plant hundreds of new Cresthaven peach trees at Ela Family Farms near Hotchkiss. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Every day I am out in the orchard right now, I just am sad.  It is very hard to see so much devastation. And, it is very hard to express the feelings since this is our livelihood,” Ela said.  “I can only guess, but when hurricanes and floods roll through areas and take away peoples’ businesses and homes, it must feel similar.”

Most weather-related damage in orchards means a grower won’t have a full crop for the next season. But this freeze flat out killed trees, still sporting green leaves when it hit, because they hadn’t had time to “harden off” and be ready for winter temperatures.

It was the fruit tree equivalent of a bear that hasn’t fattened up for hibernation or of a human flying home from a Maui vacation in shorts and flipflops and disembarking in the middle of a Leadville winter: instant shock. Cherry trees completely dead at Ela’s. Young peach trees deeply wounded. Older peach trees dead on the tops and badly hurt below. Pear trees alive but not setting buds. Apple trees surviving with light to moderate damage.

Ela said it was the coldest temperature he has ever seen in October. His mother, who has lived most of her long life on the fourth-generation farm and still walks the quarter mile from her home to help out in the farm office every day, also doesn’t remember cold that bad in the fall. She recalled that a deep cold spell killed some trees in the early 1960s, but that was due to an extended winter freeze.

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Ioannis Minas, an expert in fruit and its cultivation with the CSU Extension research facility on Orchard Mesa near Palisade, said the October freeze was a 70-year event.

“It was that bad,” he said. “That freeze may change the fruit industry on Rogers Mesa. That freeze will affect the future of stone fruits there.” 

A fruit tree disaster of this magnitude requires some creative thinking and brutal honesty from fruit farmers who normally are focused on blossom thinning and irrigation at this time of year.

For Ela Farms, it started with a “with a heavy heart” message to the hundreds of people who pay $299 for regular CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes of Ela fruit each summer and crowd his stand at the South Pearl Street Farmers Markets in Denver. Ela apologized to his CSA buyers who wouldn’t be getting any fruit boxes this year, and announced there wouldn’t be much ̶  if any ̶  fruit at the markets.

Recognizing an outsize farm disaster in an already disastrous pandemic year, many of those CSA members opted to pay the annual fee anyway.

Ela said he appreciated that support but hated having customers paying something for nothing. That’s when he came up with the adopt-a-tree idea. He also began to offer Ela fruit fans custom individualized virtual tours  and virtual “Lunch With a Farmer” question-and-answer sessions.

A new Cresthaven peach tree at Ela Family Farms carries a tag displaying the name of sponsor Jeremy Harlan, a Lone Tree customer who adopted more than 40 trees to help out the orchard. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lone Tree resident Jeremy Harlan has been buying Ela fruit for years and is such a fan that he adopted more than 40 trees.

He raves about peaches he said he has sent to well-known chefs in New York and Chicago who tell him they are the best they have ever tasted.

Beyond those accolades, Harlan said he feels so strongly about supporting a farm in trouble because he believes the Ela family likely provided fruit for his ancestors who were miners around Walsenburg in the early 1900s.

“Steve feeds me and my family now,” Harlan said. “And he is an integral part of the Colorado food scene.”

Jayne Yelich, an Englewood pastry chef who has been using Ela fruits in her cottage-industry offerings at Sweet Jayne’s and, prior to that, cooked with them at Potager Restaurant & Wine Bar in Denver, said she also felt compelled to help out.

She doesn’t have a baby tree with her name on it. She opted to go ahead and pay the annual CSA fee and hope for a better year in 2022.

“It’s easy to love Ela’s,” Yelich said about her wish to support the farm through hard times. “Steve is genuine and warm and he is a face behind his fruit. He is kind of a celebrity at the Pearl Street Market. People love meeting and talking to Steve.”

Ela is humbled   ̶-  and a tad embarrassed  – ̶  by the accolades and the support. But he realizes this is a year like no other and survival depends on a community pulling together as well as on a farmer’s gambler-soul belief that things will get better.  

He has ordered $60,000 worth of replacement trees for 2022 planting   ̶-  the earliest he can procure that many trees.

A farm that became certified organic in 2004 after a decade of effort will face lean years before the new trees can produce much. In the interim, Ela has done a few other things to branch out that may help. A sizeable crop of heirloom tomatoes will bring in some revenue as will jam and dried products made from less-than-perfect fruit. There will be apples in the fall.

“Much lower output than normal”

The Ela farm may be the only one offering tree adoptions, but Rogers Mesa suffered overall with the freeze. 

The mesa has what are called “micro pockets” of weather that can wallop one farm while sparing another nearby. Those micro-pocket and micro-climate events that result in the wild swings in temperatures have grown more drastic with a changing climate.

“The overall trajectory and pattern will be much, much lower output than normal,” said AJ Carrillo, who with his wife, Nicole, operates the Deer Tree Farm and Agro Forest a half mile from Ela’s.

Carrillo said a number of his fruit trees “just croaked” after the October deep-dip freeze. But he wasn’t hurt as badly as the Elas. He has been adding more farm animals, including chicken, sheep, pigs and cattle, and is selling meat, along with more preserved, canned and dried goods. He also has an acre of market vegetable crops. His wife augments the farm income with a catering business.

The Carrillos have been farming on Rogers Mesa for just five years so it has been fairly easy to pivot away from fruit and the increasing climate dangers to fruit crops. Carrillo pointed out that it would be much more difficult for a farm like the Ela’s that has 114 years of fruit momentum behind it.

Worker Miguel Garcia removes bunches of new Cresthaven peach trees before planting to create a new peach orchard at Ela Family Farms . (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ela’s fruit has a big following around the state and beyond, and as Harlan pointed out, its popularity is steeped in history.

That is why Ela is putting saplings into the ground this week and planning for many more next year. It is why people far removed from the farming life will be watching their computers for updates on their adopted trees.

Minas said Colorado State University is researching ways to help protect those trees in the future. One method may be slowing down irrigation water earlier in the fall so that the trees can “go to sleep” sooner and avoid unexpected fall freezes. Minas said switching to varieties more suited to cold temperatures may also offer a solution.

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Minas said Colorado is in the unique position of being a difficult place to grow stone fruits because of elevation and cold. But it’s also the state with the most valuable peaches in the nation because of their popularity with consumers who value their taste.

Ela recognizes that his customers want their tasty peaches even though they are very tough to grow. When he wrote his bad-news letter to those customers who are really more than customers, he ended with a commitment to the future: “We want to honor your part in our farm. We hope you will understand. Sometime we laugh, and sometimes we cry. We hope you will stay with us for a better year.”

As a farmer, he knows no fruit lover could abandon their tiny, vulnerable trees.

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