CORTEZ, Colo. | The hot days and cool nights of McElmo Canyon are ideal for growing a sweet peach with tangy complex flavors.
More than 100 years ago, Montezuma County pioneers knew this well, and planted thousands of peach trees in the area as part of a flourishing local fruit market.
Long-gone varieties from southwest Colorado won gold medals for best peaches at the 1904 World’s Fair, reported The Journal (http://bit.ly/2bfL3tc).
Today, alfalfa grows where those orchards were, and just a handful of peach orchards remain in the canyon.
But there is still opportunity to bring back the once-famous peach market, said Jude Schuenemeyer, an orchardist with the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP).
The key is to build a processing plant that will jar and can the perishable fruit so it can be safely transported, stored and shelved.
“It would not be that expensive, less than $50,000, to put in a commercial kitchen and cannery for a jam factory,” he said. “That would suddenly open up the peach market.”
While it will be tough to compete with the big Palisade peach market and its packing plants, Interstate 70 and nearby rail access, a niche market here has potential.
“The Albuquerque market is a real possibility because we are closer,” Schuenemeyer said. “We can bring back a small peach economy. The buyers are definitely there.”
The Montezuma Valley was once considered the highest elevation commercial fruit producing district in the country. McElmo Canyon’s well-drained, sandy soils are ideal for growing peaches.
“The roots reach deeper and pull up more water and nutrients,” Schuenemeyer said.
At 5,700 feet elevation, Schuenemeyer’s McElmo Canyon peach orchard is a prime example, considered the outer range of good peach production.
“Pushing that limit brings out more flavors because the hot, dry days and cool nights set the sugars, and gives the peach a tangy rich flavor with good color,” he said.
Because a peach tree’s lifespan is only 30-40 years, compared with an apple tree’s 80-100 years, it is estimated that 80 percent of the heritage peach varieties from the region’s heyday are gone. Along with apple trees, MORP is also cultivating new peach trees to keep the fruit market tradition alive.
Peach varieties grown locally now include Red Haven, Late Crawford, Canadian Harmony, Madison, Jeffersons, Sun Crest and Baby Crawfords.
The farm is located at 17312 County Road G, 7.5 miles down McElmo Canyon from U.S. Highway 491.
Information from: Cortez Journal, http://www.cortezjournal.com/