September 2012

A peach of a crop

By Jude Schuenemeyer

This summer, for only the third time in nine years, we had a peach crop in our orchard in McElmo Canyon. Our first crop coincided with our first year of living in the canyon. We had peaches coming out of our ears, and not sure what to do with them all, we sold what we could, but most of the crop dropped to the ground.

When our second big crop hit a few years ago, we were more knowledgeable and better prepared. As with the first crop, we were able to sell fresh peaches at Let It Grow, but we also by then had the café in place so that we could make peach smoothies and peach curries. Addie and I had freeze-the-peach date night. Though we were able to sell more of our crop in one form or another that year I bet that most of the crop still dropped.

This year, with more cultural practices in place, we knew that we were going to have a large crop of high-quality fruit. These were the peaches that made McElmo Canyon famous. We knew that we could not sell them all but we were unwilling to see most of the crop on the ground.

We talked to many of our canyon neighbors whose families had grown peaches for generations. We searched their memories for the keys to successfully harvest and market out beautiful fruit. We called markets in Durango, Mancos, Dolores, talked to restaurants, tried to arrange transportation, built relationships based on a harvest.

And while this year we have sold more of our crop than ever before, our access to markets has still been limited. Truth be told, most of our crop was sold through a series of u-pick days down on our farm, combined with significant sales and processing at Let It Grow. We were grateful for the amount of our crop that we were able to sell but still disappointed with our lack of ability to significantly build further markets.

Being both growers of food crops and sellers of local foods, through our market and café, we have developed an understanding of the local food economy based on many years of experience. Daily we live through the satisfaction and frustration of growers and sellers of food. As a café and market we have had to simplify and reduce the numbers of local vendors that we use. Though most all of the fresh food on our menu comes from local sources we work almost exclusively with one main vendor, Stone Free Farms, and several smaller vendors for a few select items.

Our reason for this is simple. Fresh food is perishable. Though we are willing to pay more for produce from a local source than we could get it at the chain store it has to be of consistently high quality. If it is not better quality we cannot sell it.

While many growers can provide high-quality produce for a while we have yet to find anyone that fits our needs as well as Stone Free Farms. Again, we do not buy on price, our decision is based upon consistent quality and professionalism.

This of course makes it difficult for potential new vendors to gain access to our market. We are a small operation – the local McDonald’s sells more meals in a day than we would in a week. Even a small grower could overwhelm our ability to sell their produce.

As a modest producer of high-quality fruit we keenly understand the frustration of having a superior product without a market. When our orchard was first in production the crops were sold to the local chain grocery store. Now, to get our peaches into that same store, we would have to grow a big enough crop to be shipped to a Denver warehouse so that it could be shipped back to Cortez for retail sale. The non-chain local stores are flooded with lower-quality but more-consistent peaches from Palisade, still competing with the national chains dumping the same peaches cheaper. The problem of course is if local growers cannot get a consistently fair price for their crop they will turn their crop under, be it a whole orchard or a bed of spinach.

There is a chicken-and-egg aspect to this. To open up larger markets we need more producers; for producers to make a living we need more markets. Redistributing markets does not help. We could easily convert Let It Grow into a produce warehouse, buying and selling locally grown products cheap. I doubt that it would be able to be financially successful, the box store will always sell more for less, and I am sure that it would take from the farmers market. The local food economy would change but not grow.

What is needed is a greater awareness of our agricultural assets and our market potential for them. I firmly believe that if Montezuma Valley fruits and produce are put into the hands of consumers, the taste and quality will win customers over.

To that end we and the Cortez Cultural Center are proud to introduce An Orchard Social and Heritage Crop Festival at the Cultural Center on the first Saturday of this October. Our goal will be to feature the remarkable quality of fruit and produce grown in our region. We will have fall crop-judging, apple sales, cider-making, apple identification, music and other family events.

We know that one event will not expand markets by itself, but every opportunity to taste the heritage of Montezuma Valley crops will remind us of our exceptional agricultural potential.

Jude Schueneyemer is co-owner of Let It Grow Garden Café and Nursery in Cortez, Colo.