Seeing rows of trees dotted with tiny green fruit, you can almost taste soft-serve Palisade peach swirled in a sugar cone.

In what seems to have been a bad weather year everywhere else, it’s been good for the Colorado peach crop. If May’s mild temperatures hold, the Western Slope’s Palisade peach producers are predicting one of the best yields in recent memory: a robust 90% survival rate for 2022.

Still, farmers remember that one year, a freeze crept into the heart of the Grand Valley on May 12.

“I never breathe easy this time of year,” said Karen Hays, who runs a small family operation of 1,500 peach trees on 12.25 acres with her dad and her son.

A sign out front advertises peach blossom honey, which Hays Farm sells to curious travelers and at farmers’ markets for $10 per jar.

Karen Hays’ 89-year-old father, Perle Hays, planted most of the trees and the pair still prune them the old-fashioned way: standing on the edge of a homemade contraption designed to get them up into the branches.

The Hays Pruner is simply a long board stuck out like a pirate’s plank screwed into the bed of a 1981 Datsun pickup and secured with a metal bracket.

“One time, the board broke and Dad said, ‘Here I go,’ and he just rode it down,” Karen Hays said.

Hays Farm has six varieties of peaches, including Karen Hays' favorite, Gala, which she said “tastes like Tang,” so plump, the juice runs down your chin.

This year, the large producers in Palisade are predicting up to a 90% crop yield, a dramatic turnaround from a disastrous 2020 when only 15% of the crop made it. That year brought two devastating temperature swings — one in the spring and another in the fall.

Still, farmers who live and die on jam and cobbler potential say this season wasn’t without its peach scares. Those came in April .

“Palisade got down to 28 degrees on the 13th and then 26 degrees for about an hour on the 14th,” said Megan Stackhouse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “The peach crop can’t handle much more than an hour of 26 degrees and colder.”

The scare in mid-April meant the difference between doom and survival for an entire season of work for farmers who have spring weather-watching down to a science.

“It’s up and down, back and forth,” said Talbott Farms’ Bruce Talbott, a fifth-generation peach farmer and owner of 400 acres of peach trees. “When a cloud goes across the sky, the temperature goes up 3-4 degrees.”

On April 13-14, Talbott had overnight crews working 60 giant fans as tall as a barn, blowing air across thousands of trees to keep frost from forming on the tender blossoms. Forty-eight agonizing hours of watching the humidity and dropping mercury ended with a whoop of relief when temperatures started inching up.

“It’s like my dad used to say: ‘If there’s a peach crop, I get good money. If not, I get by,’” Talbott said.

During the April scare, Karen and Perle Hays decided against getting out the fans. Instead, they counted on a phenomenon they call "The Million Dollar Breeze," a wind that flows from the DeBeque Canyon.

"The movement kept the frost from settling and literally saved the peaches, but I've got no nails left," Karen Hays said.

The Palisade peach is still one of Colorado’s most delicious secrets, like the Pueblo chile and the Rocky Ford cantaloupe, but people are starting to catch on. Talbott said the difference is the cool nights and hot days: “Heat builds the flavor and the cool retains it.”

When scientists in California did a sensory analysis comparing peaches from different parts of the country, they couldn’t figure out which was better in terms of chemistry.

“All I know is when it was over, the Colorado peaches went home with the scientists and the California peaches went into the Dumpster,” said Talbott, who is obviously unafraid of the vengeance of California competitors.

Palisade farming families, whose ancestors migrated to the Valley from Iowa around the turn of the 20th century, produce 30 million pounds of peaches a year on average. A healthy peach crop means $50 million-$60 million to Colorado’s economy.

Besides Talbott Farms, which is a huge operation, and the Hays Farm, which is small, there are other growers like Clark Family Orchards, whose livelihood depends on 45,000 trees filled with fuzzy fruit.

“We’re definitely not as commercial as you see in California or Georgia, where they run the peaches across a line on a machine,” said Chris Schmalz, who married into the family through Mackenzie Clark, who is seventh-generation. “They pick their peaches greener and harder. We’re still hand-picked and packed.”

Talbott agreed that there’s a science to peach plucking: “We push fruit to the limit of how ripe we can get it and still handle it without it bruising.”

But he said a real perfect peach is the one in your backyard: “I used to tell people the best peach is the one closest to home.”

Palisade peaches will be ready for eating from July 15 through Sept. 15.

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(1) comment

Ror

We have a producer near telluride that went through a similar thing. She sold out of her Colorado Proud seeds because there just wasn't enough to go round, but this year's better.. Heirloom Mountain seeds

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