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Orchard hub to serve Montezuma County apple growers

Nature Conservancy helps to purchase $310,000 property

The Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project in Southwest Colorado now has a base of operations, thanks to a generous donation from The Nature Conservancy and other donors.

The conservancy donated $297,000 toward the $310,000 purchase of a 36-acre property at 13751 County Road 29, said MORP co-director Jude Schuenemeyer.

The land includes irrigation water and a historic barn. Contributions will also go toward restoration and irrigation improvements.

MORP and TNC plan to transform the property into a 2,000-tree apple orchard and eventually add commercial juice pressing, apple storage, nursery tree sales and trainings.

“It’s a big deal, to rebuild the local fruit economy you need a base of operations, and with this generous gift we can really begin the process,” Schuenemeyer said.

The goal is to provide a centralized market base for the estimated 50,000 bushels of apples that fall to the ground and rot every year in Montezuma County.

By selling starter trees of heritage apples, a new generation of orchards will become established for future harvests.

“We are passing on this gift and are creating a genetic bank of heritage varieties in perpetuity,” Schuenemeyer said.

A fundraising campaign continues to purchase the apple press and storage facilities. Once built, regional orchard owners will have access to a large-capacity, commercial center to sell their harvest.

Owners can sell their apples or pay a fee to have their crop pressed, then sell the juice to cideries and juice companies.

There also will be fee-based commercial storage available for apple varieties that need to age to reach their full potential before pressing.

A larger-scale press and more storage capacity would benefit the local industry, said Sam Perry of Fenceline Cidery in Mancos.

“Having that bulk storage available would be great,” he said. “The more cider specific varieties grown locally, the better. It is exciting to see the orchard culture continue to expand here.”

A pilot program two years ago pressed local apples on a mobile press and attracted Front Range cideries who drove away with thousands of gallons of local juice.

Small scale agriculture

Got a little piece of land that is idle? It could make a pretty penny in the apple market.

“Orchards are perfect for smaller acreage properties,” Schuenemeyer said. “A 1- to 2-acre piece of land planted with an orchard can generate good supplemental income. It’s not expensive to put one in and does not require a lot of equipment.”

MORP wants to provide a market incentive for owners of forgotten orchards to cash in on their crop, instead of letting apples rot on the ground.

Partners also plan to demonstrate water conservation in orchards while saving Montezuma County’s rare and endangered apples.

More than 100 years ago, apples were once Colorado’s main fruit crop. But over time, apple orchards gave way to hay, alfalfa and other crops that were more lucrative — and also more water-intensive.

“Bringing back apples is not only about preserving the past,” Schuenemeyer said. “Apples use less water than other common crops in the area, and historic, wide-spaced orchards provide habitat for native pollinators, wildlife and plants. By testing irrigation strategies and looking into reviving apple production, we can increase the understanding of how to best provide food and manage water sustainably for the area.”

The Nature Conservancy will help MORP improve irrigation efficiency and showcase efficient water use practices, such as drip irrigation and soil moisture monitoring. By planting native grasses between the trees, like buffalo grass and blue grama, the soil will hold in more moisture, and the whole area will become more resistant to drought.

Water conservation

The Nature Conservancy became involved in the orchard project as a way to investigate and test options for switching crops to conserve water. Crop switching can be a tool to benefit rivers and the people that depend on them.

“We are excited to support MORP’s efforts to address water use and community resiliency,” said Celene Hawkins, Western Colorado water project director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado. “This partnership will enable us to learn more about the benefits of crop switching and what it could mean for water use in southwest Colorado.”

MORP is also involving the local community at every step of the process. By building a classroom, hosting community events, working with Americorps volunteers and partnering with local farmers, the organization aims to make orchard cultivation replicable for others in the region. This new property will be a hub to make this work possible.

“I see this as a community-based project that supports local agriculture, while also helping the region think about its options in an increasingly dry future,” Hawkins said.

MORP also is using the historic orchard property to create a genetic bank for the rare heirloom apples they’re saving. All these efforts are pointed toward reviving the apple economy on a broader scale.

The geography of the new orchard hub is ideal, Schuenemeyer said.

A low ridge protects it from high wind, and the elevation prevents cold air from settling at the site, reducing the risk of damaging early and late frosts.

“It is a perfect microclimate with good air drainage,” he said.

The new MORP “Orchard Hub” has a history as a large commercial orchard as well, but the trees were removed long ago. Jasper Hall, known as the fruit wizard of Montezuma County, owned and operated a large orchard at the site in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He died in 1915.

“I think Jasper has a big, big smile on his face seeing what our community is doing to bring it all back,” Schuenemeyer said.