by Sally Colby
Lola Brennan was a pioneer of sorts when she planted fruit trees in the rich soil of the Palisade, CO region. “She was the first grower of dwarf Granny Smith apples in the valley,” said Lola’s daughter Susan Patton. “She bought land and worked with Colorado State extension service. But she was most interested in growing grapes, so she went to Carlson Vineyards to see what they wanted and we’ve been growing grapes for them ever since.”
Today, Susan and her husband Phil grow peaches, apples, plums, pluots and wine grapes on the 65 acres which comprise Peachfork Orchards and Vineyard. The western slope region has a long history of fruit production, with soils and weather conditions which are suited for a variety of orchard crops.
“We just planted 300 plum and 500 peach trees,” said Phil. “The peaches are planted in a high-density system, with five feet between trees. They’re pruned with a ‘Y’ that’s perpendicular to the row. With more root in the ground, hopefully there will be more fruit on the trees.” The 25 acres of peaches include Red Globe, Cresthaven, August Lady, O’Henry and Roza.
Although apples aren’t a major crop for Peachfork, several varieties are grown on M-26 rootstock for a dwarf tree which doesn’t require trellising. Apple varieties include Pink Lady, Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Rome and Jonagold and Jonathan. “We sell almost all the apples directly from the store,” said Phil. “We have a crowd of people who have been buying apples from us for 50 years. When big crowds come in to buy peaches, they buy apples too. Pink Lady is our best apple, but they’re ready late, usually around Halloween. Everything is good about them except all the fruit stands have closed down when they’re ready.”
Some of the Peachfork apple crop is sold to local schools who are interested in including fresh, local products in students’ lunches. Peachfork also ships apples in gift baskets, which customers can order via the orchard’s online form. Susan says the busiest time of year for gift shipments is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Peachfork apples draw attention in the lobby of a local hotel, where they’re offered in a basket for guests to take and enjoy.
Peachfork grows some pears and Phil says they sell every pear they can grow. “Sometimes we have to purchase more to fill orders,” he said. “We also have three acres of apricots but they often freeze so we can’t count on that crop. It’s all or nothing, and with no established market, it’s hard to sell them.” A small section of pluots rounds out the orchard selections.
While Peachfork has a steady business selling seasonal fruit from their on-farm market and by mail-order, the majority of peaches are sold at fundraisers. Susan explains the fundraiser business is the result of a conversation Phil had with someone he met from Jackson, WY. The first year, Peachfork sold 100 boxes of peaches for a fundraiser, but the order has since increased to 1,200 boxes. “We pick our fruit tree-ripened, then sort and package it by hand,” said Phil. “They get better fruit for a fundraiser for churches, schools or any other group.”
As much as Phil would like to sell an entire truckload of peaches to every fundraising customer, he’s willing to start new customers with low volume and work with people as they grow. “If they only want 100 boxes, I might not make much when they’re getting started,” he said. “I create a relationship with them and I’m fair with the price, and have been working with them for a while, so they don’t go to any other grower. I nurture them along until they’re more profitable.” Although the Wyoming group is their largest fundraising customer Peachfork also works with the Optimist Club in Denver, 4-H clubs, churches, schools and other organizations.
Grapes fit well in the Peachfork model, thanks to Lola Brennan’s ambition more than 25 years ago. The vineyard is still selling grapes to the same area winery and 1,500 new vines will be planted this year. “We grow Merlot, Syrah, Limberger, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay, Chambourcin, Noiret, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Orange Muscat,” said Phil, who recently obtained his own winery license. “Limberger makes a very good wine, and we’re planting another acre of Orange Muscat because the winery wants more.” The winery also purchases 20,000 pounds of Peachfork’s Italian prune plums for their plum wine.
Phil explains he obtained a winery license mostly because he enjoys making wine, but it will also allow him to make a higher volume and bottle for his own label, which he’s doing now. “I can take the surplus that the winery doesn’t want,” he said. “It’s a safeguard. I don’t plan to get big into the winery business, but it was getting to the point where I needed a license.”
Although you-pick isn’t a feature of Peachfork, the family has dedicated a small group of fruit trees adjacent to the farm store for customers who want to pick their own fruit. “Any time a family comes with small children and want to pick, we’ll go out there with them and let them pick apples,” said Phil. “It’s limited, but we do it as a courtesy.”
Like any other orchard, Peachfork often has overripe fruit which isn’t suitable for fresh market sales. Phil says a local group is considering forming a co-op which would take overripe fruit to make salsas and other added-value products.
Peachfork Orchards and Vineyards is a stop on the Palisade Fruit and Wine Byway, which draws visitors to the region. “We also have a lot of local customers who had been coming for apples, then they find out we have peaches,” said Susan. “We have a steady customer base. For a long time we didn’t do much advertising, then we realized a lot of new people moved into the valley and didn’t know we’re out here.” We’re seeing an influx of people from eastern Colorado, especially Denver, because people want to get away.”
One of the biggest challenges for Peachfork, and other area orchards, is rapidly changing springtime weather. “It’s the biggest threat to our peach crop,” said Susan. “As long as we have irrigation water, we can manage well. In a drought year, if they start to cut off the water, that can hurt us. Labor for picking can also be a challenge, but we have family in the area and they’re willing to help when needed.”
Visit Peachfork Orchards and Vineyards online at www.peachfork.com.
Sunny days, cool nights
by Sally Colby