The peachless summer: Palisade’s peach farmers ravaged by early freeze, still plow forwards into next year

The peachless summer: Palisade’s peach farmers ravaged by early freeze, still plow forwards into next year

But peaches are going to be in short supply

VicesMay 01, 2020 By Will Brendza

Palisade peaches are a staple of summers in Colorado. From July to September you’ll see peach stands along this state’s highways and roads, slinging succulent fruit to hungry passersby; restaurants feature Palisade peach dishes and desserts, bars make Palisade peach cocktails, breweries, Palisade peach beer; and Coloradans across the state bring home bushels to fill their pantries and their freezers.

The peach industry in this state typically yields 17,000 tons of peaches — a haul worth some $40 million, according to figures from Governor Polis.

Needless to say, peaches are a lot of money for the centennial state (on top of being a cultural icon and summer delicacy).

But this year, Palisade’s peach farmers were dealt a gnarly hand. A brutal and unexpected early freeze destroyed almost 90% of most farmers’ crop — meaning that the summer of 2020 is likely going to be a peachless one in Colorado.

“It got down to 24-degrees for about four hours,” Clare Talbott, a peach farmer in Palisade, tells me. “So, it was cold.

Some of C&R Farms' fruit trees in bloom. Photo courtesy of C&R Farms.  

The fruit of peach trees in full bloom can’t survive conditions colder than 28-degrees. “You lose 10 percent every 20 minutes,” Talbott explains. So at 24-degrees­, over four hours, Talbott and her peach farming Palisade neighbors lost almost all of their crop. The total loss for the Palisade area is likely to exceed $7 million.

Which, is what prompted Governor Polis to declare the event an emergency — so that farmers like Talbott, could access assistance programs and federal loans.  

“It was the worst late freeze Palisade has had in over 20 years,” Talbott says.

She and her husband Bruce know that, because they remember the last time it happened. They’ve been operating C&R Farms since 1979. It’s a 120-acre slice of Rocky Mountain paradise: they grow peaches, apricots, pears, apples and cherries; it’s family-founded, family-operated and nestled beside the Colorado river, under a stunning view of Mt. Lincoln.

C&R Farms. Photo courtesy of C&R Farms.  

C&R Farms survived the 1999 early freeze, though. They’ll be alright this time around too, Talbott says, a firm confidence in her voice. Between the assistance programs from the Department of Agriculture and her personal cache of peaches she’s already got stored in the freezer, Talbott says she’ll make it to next season, no problem. And they’ll be anxious to get to business when that time comes.

“We will be very excited,” she says in earnest. “We definitely will be ready for next year.”

Until then, though, they won’t be bored. The work on a farm is never over, she tells me; they already have to start thinking about preparations for the 2021 season.

“We’ve still got to take care of the trees. We’ve got to irrigate. We’ve still got to spray,” she says. “You've still got to take care of your land and your crop for next year, because pretty quick in about June or July, the trees start making their buds for next year.”

It’s the way of things on a peach farm. Even a lost crop, doesn’t mean a vacation.  

Fruit trees in blossom on C&R Farms. Photos courtesy of C&R Farms.  

Talbott seems more than alright about that, though. She’s got her whole family with her: her husband, Bruce, and some of their children and grandchildren. And they’re going to take on this season as a team. They’re going to teach their grandkids how to irrigate and Talbott’s daughter is going to help paint baby trees.

While the world outside C&R Farms is frozen in a strange pandemic limbo, life on the farm will plow forward. And the whole Talbott family will be helping drive that.

“We don't live in New York City — we live in western Colorado and this is a blessed place to live,” Talbott says. “We’re going to be fine. We'll get through it. There's a lot of other people that are in a lot worse shape than us, right now.”

Colorado’s peach industry and most of the farmers that carry it, are going to be alright, despite this extremely unlucky early freeze. There’s always next season.

What this really means, for Coloradans everywhere, is that we’re going miss out on this summer’s Palisade peaches. Peach stands will be a rare sight. Peach dishes and desserts, cocktails and beers will be in short supply.

It’s just another barb in the wire, that’s been 2020 so far. But at least it isn’t a disastrous one. The peaches will return.