In a ‘bizarre’ spring, hopes are that May flowers bring fall fruit
The wet spring of 2013 brought one of the most magnificent serviceberry blooms in recent memory, signalling the start of a season of plenty for wildlife and humans alike. A late cold snap in 2014 left orchards struggling and hungry bears looking for food in town.
This year is likely to be a bit of both.
“It has been a bizarre spring, to say the least,” said Bruce Talbott, orchard manager at Talbott Farms in Palisade.
A February warm spell had some trees flowering early, making them vulnerable to frost. In fruit-producing communities of the Western Slope, it all came down to elevation.
“We think we’ve got the best crop in years coming up in Mesa County. I’d say there’s 95 percent of a peach crop and heaviest cherry set I’ve ever seen,” said Talbott. “We’re very fortunate. The story in Paonia, Hotchkiss, Cedaredge is different.”
While orchards in Mesa County were able to pull through a cold snap in late April, Delta County — about 500 feet higher — was hit hard.
“When you’re on the line, it takes very little to step over. They were over, and we were under,” Talbott said.
Some orchards even plan to close for the season. While many have crop insurance, it doesn’t cover everything, and missing a year can make it hard to attract workers and customers in the future.
“You’re playing the odds,” said Talbott. “We’ve been beat up enough times, we feel for anyone that loses a crop.”
Orchards are few and far between at higher elevations, but small farms and backyard trees in Garfield and Pitkin counties may actually have fared better than typically warmer Delta County. Fruit trees are most at risk when they’re blooming and setting fruit. Many varieties can take a late snow, while a clear, cold night can ruin the year’s crop. Trees up high may not be so easily tricked into blooming early as their lower counterparts, making them less vulnerable to freak frosts or absent pollinators.
Jerome Osentowski of Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture and the Heritage Fruit Tree Project is optimistic for the trees at his home near Basalt.
“It’s still a crapshoot – we’ve had killer frosts in June — but this year it looks like I’m going to have a bumper crop,” he said.
In fact, after several mild winters, Osentowski has adventured beyond the standard hardy mulberries, grapes, apples and pears and is even having luck with sweet cherries now.
“We’re actually on the good side of global warming, for a while anyway,” he observed.
In the long run, however, climate models call for less predictable weather and less precipitation, not just warmer temperatures.
“It’s just going to get worse,” he said. “It could change agriculture in Colorado.”
Osentowski’s solution is to propagate trees that have already proven themselves against the rigors of the Western Slope.
That’s far from a sure bet, as even the native flora has its off years.
Last year, the serviceberry, chokecherry and Gambel oak that many animals — particularly bears — rely on never quite hit their stride.
“Last year there were some isolated spots that were pretty good, but in general it was horrible,” said Perry Will, Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager for Area 8.
The result, Will said, was one of the worst summers for bear conflicts in recent memory.
“It seems like every couple years, we get these food failures for these bears. If there isn’t that natural forage out there, then our conflicts just skyrocket. If we have good forage, it’s very manageable.”
Even so, Will said, folks should always remain bear aware and secure their trash.
As for this year’s outlook, Will said, it’s “so far so good.” There have already been a few reports of bears in neighborhoods, but the high country crops seem to have stayed dormant through the freeze that hurt Delta County.
While the die is already cast down below, the high country could still be susceptible to a late freeze.
“May’s a roll of the dice. We’re not out of the woods until usually June,” said Will. “Me and my guys watch the weather as close as the fruit guys in Palisade. It’s that critical.”
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