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Montezuma orchard project plants trees at CSU research station

Project to study ways to grow heritage varieties

The Colorado State University research station in Yellow Jacket is joining the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project’s efforts to bring apple production back to the region.

More than 20 volunteers visited the Southwest Colorado Research Center recently to help plant about 44 heritage apple trees as part of a project that will study efficient ways to grow the varieties that once thrived in Montezuma County.

Apples were once one of the area’s primary crops, and the Restoration Project has been working since 2008 to find a way to make them profitable again. This is the first time in several years that they’ve partnered with the research center, and extension agent Gus Westerman said the new project was made possible by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Farmers Union.

“We’re trying to get these trees out in the community so we can grow these up ... and keep propagating new trees until we get to the point where we can get a nursery to start growing here,” said Dave Sanford, Restoration Project president.

He and the research staff planted about eight varieties of trees, which Sanford said produce better-tasting apples than many modern breeds. They planted with dwarfing rootstocks that will ensure the resulting trees will be small and compact, something Westerman said has never been done with the heritage varieties they used. He said small trees are better because farmers can plant more of them in a small space, and in an industry that can cost farmers $12,000 or more per acre, space counts.

Members of the Restoration Project, local gardeners and AmeriCorps volunteers helped research station staff plant the trees.

Sanford said there used to be more than 100 apple varieties growing in Montezuma County, but the decline of the railroad and the rise of apple industries in other states led more farmers to turn to the few varieties that produced large, red fruits. But genetic diversity is important for a crop like this, Westerman said. He said having several different varieties in one orchard can reduce risk for farmers, especially in high-altitude climates where the weather is unpredictable.

At the research station, which boasts one of the highest demonstration orchards in the world, the different types of apple trees produce fruit at different times, ensuring that even if an unexpected frost kills one crop, another will come along to replace it. Different varieties are also useful for different things – some apples are better for cider, others for baking and still others taste better by themselves.

“This is the beginning of a really good partnership between extension and the orchard restoration project,” he said. “This is a way that we can work together and have these trees out in a public place.”

When the new trees start producing fruit, the research station will hold “you pick” events, where people will be able to pay to pick apples themselves, which will help pay for the orchard’s operating costs. Meanwhile, the Restoration Project plans to hold a tree sale in June and is moving toward planting new community orchards in Dolores and Mancos. It also planted several heritage trees at the Gold Medal Orchard in McElmo Canyon.

“I want to see a sign up there on the Montezuma County border that says ‘Montezuma County: Orchard Country,’” Sanford said.

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