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USDA funds apple press for Cortez-area hub

Local orchard group to begin processing in 2021
A mobile industrial apple pressing unit will be stationed in Montezuma County beginning in 2021.

A growing apple market in Southwest Colorado just got a commercial boost.

The nonprofit Montezuma Apple Orchard Restoration Project has received a $323,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the purchase of a mobile industrial apple presser and pasteurizer. MORP is matching $81,000.

The large-capacity unit will be set up at the new MORP Orchard Hub at 13751 County Road 29, and be available to orchard owners cideries and juice makers for a fee.

“It will go into operation in time for the 2021 harvest,” said Jude Schuenemeyer, orchardist and co-founder of MORP. “This is a major step forward. Having this industrial press is a key component of the mission to put our region’s apples onto the larger market.”

The grant is one of 44 awarded nationwide – totaling $13.5 million – through the USDA Transportation and Marketing Local Food Promotion Program.

The Montezuma County apple presser “project will help create economic benefits for the rural southwestern Colorado farmers,” according to the USDA. “This project will generate income for local farmers by turning apples into marketable pasteurized juice for retail consumption and unpasteurized juice for cider production.”

The mobile unit can be set up in local orchards for convenient processing during harvest.

It will focus on orchards and cideries in Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata and San Miguel counties. The orchard hub also will offer commercial storage for apple varieties that need to age before pressing.

Owners can sell their apples for pressing or pay a fee to have their crop pressed. The juice will be marketed to cideries and juice companies. The leftover pulp can be used for fertilizer or livestock feed.

The goal is to provide a centralized market base for the estimated 50,000 bushels of apples left on the ground every year in Montezuma County. There is potential for the local apple market to become $1 million per year industry, according to MORP research.

“Orchards used to be a foundational part of our economy, and now we are on track to make that happen again,” Schuenemeyer said.

A pilot commercial pressing program in 2017 attracted cideries from the Front Range.

The new press is not just for larger orchard operations, Schuenemeyer said. Casual apple tree owners let apples drop and rot because there wasn;t a local infrastructure for them.

Most of the older apple trees in Montezuma County produce 5-10 bushels per year. A bushel is 40 pounds.

MORP will pay $4 per bushel to harvest the apples and $8 per bushel if the orchard owner harvest them.

“For people on a fixed income, that can make a difference,” Schuenemyer said. “An acre of old orchard in reasonable shape should be able to generate $2,000-$3,000, about double that if the people can harvest themselves.”

MORP envisions the project as a catalyst for private growth in the apple market.

Orchards with rare heritage apple varieties are being preserved and planted in Montezuma County. They produce flavorful cider, despite appearing blemished.

MORP sells starter apple trees, including heritage varieties they graft and propagate, to help sustain the orchard market.

Have a 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.”

The Colorado Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop program also recently awarded MORP $87,000 toward their efforts to preserve Colorado’s rare and endangered apple genetics and to diversify the selection of varieties which have varying genetic traits such as drought tolerance and insect and disease resistance.

For more information on the apple market and local varieties visit the MORP website.