by Sally Colby
Colon Orchards is situated in a valley on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, which means working with the challenges of a dry, high plains desert climate. “It’s different now,” said Britt Colon, noting the changes in growing conditions over the years. “The valley we’re in, the Arkansas Valley, used to be apple and cherry orchards as far as you could see.”
When Britt’s great-grandfather started the Canon City farm in 1937, the main crop was apples. “When my father Mannie came into the business, they planted other vegetables and built a farm stand,” said Britt. “They also made hay.”
When Britt went away to college, she had no plans to return to the farm. However, she returned to the farm after being away for seven years and quickly gained new perspective on the business and realized that it’s what she loves. She says the work ethic she learned from growing up on the farm has proven to be useful. Today, Britt is a fourth generation grower and in charge of operations on the farm.
Britt says when she returned, the farm was holding its own, but wasn’t moving forward. She had some ideas to reinvent the farm, and Mannie, who manages the haymaking and irrigation aspect of the operation, was open to new ideas.
“I wanted to put a corn maze in and have people come to the farm and enjoy the farm experience,” Britt said. “I also started the u-pick apples. A lot of kids have never picked an apple – a lot of adults have never picked an apple.”
Weather can quickly change a grower’s plans, however, and that’s what happened to the Colon family. “During the winter of 2014, we had several sub-zero nights in a row and lost about 80 percent of the orchard,” said Britt. “We’ve been pulling all of the dead trees, and this year, we’re going to plant clover or rye, then we’ll be getting young trees next year.”
Britt said the new varieties they plant will have to tolerate early season warm-up followed by lengthy cold. Although Colon Orchards has traditionally grown some old-time heritage favorites, including Yellow Transparent and Winesap, Britt said the new plantings will be more adapted to disease and weather pressure. “We’re looking for an apple that will be more tolerant of the weather here,” she said, adding that customers frequently ask for Honeycrisp. “We’ve been looking at the EverCrisp® variety that’s are supposed to be more tolerant.” However, release of that variety is limited and they won’t be able to get as many trees as they’d like.
Since irrigation is essential to growing crops in the region, the planting system for the new trees will have to be suited to the existing gated pipes or siphon tube systems. Water is sourced from the Arkansas River, and Colon Orchards has ditch shares for several ditches.
Colon Orchards is in the heart of western green chili production area, and from mid-August through late October, the chilies grown there are harvested and roasted. “We have mild Anaheim, Big Jim medium, Poblano medium, Pueblo hot and Inferno for those who like extremely hot,” said Britt, naming a few of the varieties grown on the farm. Britt credits Miguel, an experienced chili roaster, for roasting the chilies just right. “Peppers are put into a large round cylinder, then sprayed with water to moisten them,” she explained. “The cylinder rotates and cooks the peppers. We can leave the seeds in for extra heat, or take them out. People buy them by the bushel, half-bushel or half-pound bags. They process them at home to use all year long.”
Other popular vegetable crops include cucumbers and squash. “We grow a lot of hard winter varieties,” said Britt. “Blue Hubbard, Red Hubbard, Golden Hubbard, Kershaw, Buttercup, Butternut and Delicata. We also grow summer squash – yellow straightneck, patty pan, yellow scallop and Calabacita.”
Pumpkins include standard Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins and giant varieties, Knuckle Head (a warty variety) and minis.
“This year we planted Porcelain Doll, which are pink, and Jarrahdale, which are blue,” said Britt. “We also grow Lunch Lady gourds.” In addition to fruit and vegetable crops, Colon Orchards produces hay on about 500 acres.
Although Britt grows some tomatoes, heirloom varieties such as Purple Cherokee and Brandywine are grown on her cousin’s organic farm. She also purchases tomatoes from western slope farms that have better growing conditions. “I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that there’s a whole new generation of people who want to learn how to can,” said Britt, explaining the increase in demand for Roma tomatoes. “I encourage it. We’re in the process of adding a bakery to the farm market, and I’d like to offer canning classes.”
In the past, Colon Orchards’ apple pies were popular, and Britt would like to start making apple cider donuts in the new bakery. “It would tie into the agritourism well,” she said. “Once we have apples, people will be able to pick them, then come in and have cider and donuts while they enjoy the farm.” Britt says Mannie would also like to add zombie paintball to the fall offerings at Colon Orchards, and added that there is a lot to consider with such an activity, including appropriate wagons and gear for participants as well as ample monitoring for the activity.
School tours in the fall include a trip to the pumpkin patch and apple orchard, which gives Britt an opportunity to explain what happened to the trees that are missing. She’s looking forward to hosting tours next year when she’ll be able to show children how young trees are taking the place of the old trees that were lost. Children who come to the farm for the tour bring a canned food for the local food bank and get a hayride and pumpkin.
Colon Orchards is represented at a fall festival in late September held on the grounds of nearby Holy Cross Abbey Winery. “We roast chilies there, and we sell a lot of apples,” said Britt. “When we had our own apples, we crushed them for the winery. They make apple wine and it sells out every year. We would like to be able to supply apple juice for them again. We also attend Apple Day on the first Saturday of October in Penrose, Colorado.” Colon Orchards has their own Apple Day specials on the farm including hayrides and other fall activities.
Britt says that the Colorado legislature recently passed a bill to protect farms that offer agritourism activities. The bill allows property owners to notify participants in agritourism activities, through signage, that they assume the risk inherent in such activities. Operators of such facilities may provide a statement to be signed by the participant or display a sign with specific wording where activities take place.
To advertise the farm and provide information about the farm before it opens to the public in mid-July, Britt does a series of radio ads, which she says have been highly effective. She also relies on social media to keep in touch with customers and promote the farm.
Britt has been a member of the North American Farm Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA) for three years, and says it’s a great organization. “The people are so open,” she said. “They’re willing to tell others what works and what doesn’t work.”
Visit Colon Orchards online at www.colonorchards.com .
Reinventing a generational farm
by Sally Colby