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Historic orchards of Montezuma, La Plata counties are a ‘living museum’

Restoration project aims to propagate rare apple cultivars that would be lost without human involvement
Jude Schuenemeyer, Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, co-director, talks about the 100 varieties that make up the 400 apples trees in its newest orchard that was recently planted in 6 acres of ground northeast of Cortez. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For the people involved with the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, preserving historic apple orchards isn’t just about protecting the past; it’s about preparing for the future.

The rare apples grown in about 200 historic orchards identified by MORP in Montezuma County not only taste fresh. They are a diverse and sustainable resource that presents interesting economic opportunities in a world bracing for more radical weather events because of climate change.

The restoration project is a 15-year-long effort to preserve and propagate rare apple cultivars, many of which are 70 to 140 years old, for hundreds of years to come.

Jude Schuenemeyer, MORP’s co-director, said the project has inventoried 10,000 trees in Montezuma County alone. The oldest of the trees are remnants of the American Industrial Revolution, discarded by farmers in the early 1900s when popular apples such as Rome, red delicious and Jonathan apples became commodities.

He said Southwest Colorado possibly has “the largest coalition of old apple trees and orchards that exist anywhere in the United States” and the historic orchards in Montezuma County are a “living museum.”

The apples these mature trees produce aren’t necessarily as marketable as apples found in grocery stores, at least in the traditional sense. They aren’t all deep red in color, glossy and flawless.

“These apples haven’t been sprayed with anything in years,” Schuenemeyer said. “They’re as healthy and as wholesome a food as you can get. You may have to eat around or cut around a worm or two, but there’s really nothing wrong with them.”

They pose benefits to growers, he said. Having adapted to the region’s relatively high altitude and erratic seasonal frosts, these hardy apple trees have endured “heat, cold, drought and weather at 6,000 feet” above sea level in Southwest Colorado since the late 1800s.

Jude Schuenemeyer, Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, co-director, holds pure apple juice on Aug. 3 that they bottle. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Thanks to the diversity of cultivars cataloged by MORP – some of which are the sole remaining living cultivars of their kind – these historic orchards present the possibility for more diverse harvests and longer blooming seasons. That means there are better odds for stronger harvests even in harsh weather years, Schuenemeyer said.

MORP is partially a preservation project and partially economic development. He said the project’s driven to find and propagate rare cultivars so they don’t disappear forever. To do that, cultivars are cut for scionwood, grafted onto new rootstocks and planted in a variety of locations or sold.

Grafted cultivars have been planted at the Pine River Library in Bayfield, the Mancos Public Library, public schools and other preservation orchards.

A 70-tree orchard is located at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School. Bayfield received apple trees by the restoration project. Growers in Hermosa, about 10 miles of Durango, have orchards surveyed and inventoried by MORP.

Extra grafts are sold to raise money for the restoration project, Schuenemeyer said. MORP grafted 1,600 to 1,700 trees this year with over 100 unique cultivars. Last year, it grafted about 1,000 trees and close to 100 different cultivars.

“Whereas a commercial grocery will grow five different varieties and 1,000 or 10,000 of each variety, we’re growing 100 different varieties with fives and 10s of each variety,” he said.

Jude Schuenemeyer, Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, co-director, on Aug. 3, says the mobile cider press has been a great addition to the business. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Farmers from Montezuma and La Plata counties are MORP’s main customers, who have found the apples do have marketability because of their historic nature.

Schuenemeyer said they give “the ultimate sense of place.” The apples alone are not the only product sold to farmers; MORP has a mobile cider press and a pasteurizer to create cider and collect natural apple waste and turn it into a safe and shelf-stable product.

“Up until we bought this mobile cider press, the last time there was a real market for the fruit here was when Mountain Sun was going, back in the late ’80s through the mid-’90s. After that, there’s been no market and all this fruit is hitting the ground,” he said.

Farmers are also invited to pick apples from the historic orchards because MORP doesn’t have the labor force to pick them all, Schuenemeyer said. Farmers can pick the fruit themselves or hire hands to do the field work, bring the apples back to MORP and sell them to the restoration project.

“We will accept free apples and we’re always glad to,” he said. “But we’re really trying to incentivize the value of the crop. We are not a gleaning project, primarily. We are an economic development project. We’re trying to get farmers paid.”

Don Carnes, who inherited an orchard in Hermosa that is more than 100 years old, looks over a Gravenstein apple tree on Aug. 3 that is one of 34 fruit trees in the orchard. Carnes plans on planting a field behind his place with more apple trees that he will purchase from Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Hermosa Orchard owner Don Carnes, who inherited the orchard in 2012 when his father died, said his family bought the orchard in 1969. The property has a single-room homestead cabin built in 1880 and a larger home built in 1900.

Shortly after inheriting the orchard, he was contacted by Schuenemeyer and his wife, Addie, about inventorying it.

Carnes said his family had sold fruit grown in the orchard for years, but didn’t know much about the trees. So he was thrilled when the Schuenemeyers offered to test their trees’ DNA for free.

“As it turned out … I’ve got 17 Washington state Gravensteins. Gravenstein is a very early summer apple. Really good apples. Can be used for just about anything,” he said.

Gravensteins bear fruit early in the summer, and the Hermosa Orchard has fall and winter cultivars as well. They have yellow bell flower apples, Fameuse snow apples that are totally white on the inside, Chenago strawberries, Macintoshes and Bietigheimer, a large apple about 5 inches wide.

A couple of years ago, EsoTerra Ciderworks, which buys all of Carnes’ apples, won third best cider with the Gravensteins grown at Hermosa Orchard, Carnes said.

“I’ve got the medal that they won, that they gave to me,” he said. “That was a nationwide cider competition. So that’s a fairly prestigious win for something like that.”

A Gravenstein apple treegrows in Don Carnes’ orchard in Hermosa on Aug. 3. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
100 years ago to 100 years from now

The oldest apple trees documented by MORP grew from seeds planted in the late 1800s during the American Industrial Revolution, Schuenemeyer said.

They were casualties of an exodus of workers from farms to factories, gaining momentum that wouldn’t peak until the 1900s. In the midst of it all, a “cultural forgetting” of many fruits’ purposes occurred.

“Some were for drying or for sauce or for frying. Long-keeping winter varieties that you’d put in your root cellar at a time before refrigeration or Walmart. And we have forgotten so much of that,” he said. “These did not go extinct or near extinct because they were bad. People’s consumer tastes changed.”

People realized by the late 1800s that boxcars of red apples sold better than boxcars of yellow, green or mixed-color apples, he said. So growers followed the market, which prized shiny red apples over all others.

Just a few of the fruit trees in Don Carnes’ orchard in Hermosa on Aug. 3, which is more than 100 years old. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Schuenemeyer said through MORP he hopes to bring these rare, diverse cultivars back from the brink of extinction. In doing so, he’d revitalize orchard culture that is all but lost.

“Part of that is building the economy,” he said. “We’ve always felt that if you want people to care about the old trees and plant the next generation of new trees, you (must) have the economy there. People can only love things so much. If you have an economic incentive it helps a lot.”

That’s why MORP purchased its mobile cider press and is building out infrastructure to accommodate a market for the fruits, Schuenemeyer said. Another significant factor for any ongoing preservation efforts is water conservation.

“It’s always about the water,” he said. “For us to keep these orchards and these cultivars around 100 years from now, we have to protect and maintain our water rights. And we have to be conservative with our water. We have to use it the best we can.”


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