In an ongoing effort to revive the local apple economy, officials with the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project met with 40 growers in Dolores last week to discuss market potential.
One hundred years ago, the Montezuma Valley had a thriving fruit tree economy, and was known for its unusual apple varieties.
That economy has since disappeared, but thousands of the apple trees survive. However, most of the crop drops to the ground to rot, or feed deer and livestock.
To test the mostly forgotten market, the orchard project held a pilot apple-pressing event in the fall. Renting a portable industrial press, they squeezed the juice out of 800 bushels of local heritage apples bought from orchard owners. The 2,200 gallons of juice was sold and trucked to cideries, including one on the Front Range.
MORP economist Carolyn Dunmire reported the pressing and sale event was a success. Thanks to volunteer labor, the event broke even, with costs and revenues each coming in around $13,000.
“The bottom line is that every apple grown in the Montezuma Valley could be bought,” she said. “The story of heritage apples and family-owned orchards is a big seller and very popular right now.”
MORP specialists are conducting a feasibility study to flush out specific needs essential for bringing back the local orchard market.
They are trying to determine if there is enough producer and investment interest to purchase a mobile industrial press and pasteurizer.
Specifics, such as labor costs, prices, logistics, and required equipment were presented to orchard owners thinking about entering the business.
The cider market is considered ideal for the local apple market because the heritage varieties are in demand for their flavor, and the apples don’t have to be perfect.
During the pilot pressing event, producers were paid 20 cents per pound if they harvested their own apples. If MORP volunteers picked the apples, they paid the orchard owner 10 cents per pound.
“We proved we could purchase, press and sell juice, and we learned how much it takes to pick that many apples and get them to a central location,” Dunmire said.
MORP learned that the area needs updated orchard infrastructure if the market is to return. Sorting equipment, crates, trucks, tractors and forklifts are all needed. There is also shortage of cold storage and root cellars required to preserve apple stock waiting to be pressed.
By the numbersHistoric orchards need to be rehabilitated and pruned to produce enough apples for a profitable business. Assuming 150 apple trees per acre and $12 per hour labor costs, MORP estimates upfront rehabilitation costs at $5,000 per acre for the first year. The estimate does not include price of land, fencing and water cost.
By the second year, MORP estimates a restored historic orchard could sell 400 bushels per acre for the cider or juice market, at $3.20 per bushel. By the third year, the historic orchard is estimated to make a profit, and produce 675 bushels per acre of juice, or 4.5 bushels per tree. Add to that 112 bushels per acre of fresh pack apples, at $25 per bushel.
“At that point, you would be in the black by $1,700,” said MORP director Nina Williams. “Not here to tell you will get rich, but it is supplemental income. We’re presenting research to give you someplace to start.”
Some hurdles identified were that older trees require more careful handpicked harvesting because the trees don’t hold up well to the shaking method. Finding a willing labor force and implementing training programs are also needed to effectively harvest the apples.
The orchard project learned that selling apple juice for store shelves is more complicated because of a stricter permitting process from the health department. Apples pressed and sold for alcoholic cider have less permitting requirements. Cider, with its alcohol content, does not require the pasteurization process because it’s fermented.
Sam Perry, of the local Fenceline Cider Co., is making cider from a blend of local apples processed during the MORP pressing event.
“We’re really happy with the cider and plan to sell half in kegs and half in bottles,” he said. “The heritage apples have great flavor.”
Other ideas discussed were forming a Montezuma Valley orchard cooperative, promoting agricultural tourism focusing on orchards, and using the “barn raising” strategy where volunteers help each other get orchards into shape.
MORP is generating the next crop of heritage apple trees through grafting and propagating. They are making the young trees available to the public.
“We need more active orchard owners to make this work long term,” said Addie Schuenemeyer, an orchardist with MORP.
Find out more at their website: www.montezumaorchard.org