duck-shaped pain


Where I Obsess About Peaches

I don't have much time today, so I'm going to use something I wrote last week as today's entry. Those of you now know me better have probably already read this, but it's still good...

You can always tell when it's almost summer here when the farmer's markets open up. Ours opened late week, even though they didn't have much to sell. People had obviously been starved for some fresh produce, because hordes of them showed up on opening day, even though the only things anyone had for sale were things like beets and turnips and Swiss chard. I managed to score some fresh peas and got one of the few stalks of fresh garlic that anyone had for sale [1].

Right now, the cherries are being harvested. I haven't bought any yet, but it's been rumored that this year's crop is one of the best in recent memory. In the next couple of weeks, we'll start to see apricots and squash, and then, later, tomatoes, peppers, and lots of smaller crops. We're still about a month away, though, from the pinnacle of all Grand Valley crops: the peaches.

If anything from the Grand Valley can said to be famous, even on the smallest scale, it would be our peaches. Colorado is the 8th largest peach-growing state in the country (although it's hard for me to see this statistic and not think, "hey, that must be 8th out of 8." I have no idea if that's true, though), and the area I grew up in produces 90-95% of the state's crop. The coming of the peaches is a big thing here. People flood the farmer's markets when the crop comes in, and, of course, there's an annual Peach Day celebration, complete with peach pies, jams, wine and peach fun and games.

This year, in particular, will be an especially happy one, agriculturally. For the first time in about four years, none of the crops were damaged by late frost or snow, and this year's yield is estimated to be about 20% higher than average. From late February to about the middle of May, the growers, and, with them, the entire valley, are on edge, watching the weather and trying to predict if or when a killer frost might happen. Everything, it seems, depends on how the tiny peaches are doing. When they get killed by frost, as has happed so often lately, it seems like a pall falls over the entire area, and people, unconsciously or otherise, think, "What's the point of having summer now?"

Peaches are one of the few things that I will admit to getting weepy over. They make me even weepier than, for example, stories where dogs die or even the Winter Olympics [2]. I read a book a few weeks ago called "Epitaph for a Peach," which was an account of one famer's attempts to save his out-of-fashion peach trees (their fruit didn't have the appealing color and long shelf life that retailers wanted) from oblivion. I really had a long, drawn-out sobfest over that book. I'm not sure why I have that sort of reaction to them. I mean, after all, they're only a fruit. King of the fruits, sure, but there are all sorts of things and issues out there worthier of getting upset over.

I've been thinking a lot lately about our peaches, not just because of their imminent arrival or because summer is here, but because of the fact that this year will probably be a big turning point in the agricultural life of the grand valley. Even though they generate a lot of business and even though they mean a lot to the people who live here, our poor peaches are probably doomed.

(The best map of the Grand Valley I could find on the net is here)

Agriculture, for a long time, was the only business in the Grand Valley. This was long before uranium and then oil shale came and went, leaving destruction and economic depression in their wake. This was long, long before the current fad of attracting retirees, light manufacturing and the tiniest amount of high-tech companies to the area. Almost this whole valley used to be orchards. It's reflected in many of the place names around here. Fruita. Orchard Mesa. Fruitvale. Orchard Avenue. Elberta Avenue. The house I live in now is where cherry trees where, 30 years ago.

Development over the last few decades has wiped out most of the orchards. In 1964, 5,910 acres of the Grand Valley were devoted to agriculture. Today, only 2,805 acres remain [3]. These remaining orchards are, for the most part, concentrated in one area -- the community of Palisade, in the far east end of the valley. Palisade is a very small, close-knit community, made up mostly of old fruit-growing families, vineyard owners (it's also a wine-producing area, however small), and people who prefer to live there for its scenery and relative peacefulness. It's been relatively untouched by the current rash of developent, for several reasons. One, it's sort of out of the way. Second, it's not zoned to accomodate development (more on this in a bit). So visiting Palisade is sort of Palisade is like stepping back in time. Almost all of the houses date to when Palisade was first settled and the fruit industry started, so there's tons of Victorian houses everywhere. There's an old brick railway station which no one stops at anymore, and a tiny, family-owned grocery store. I like cities a lot, but if I had the means to stay here and buy a house, it would be in Palisade.

The whole area is zoned for agricultural purposes, which is what has kept it so free of development up until now. The zoning policy for Mesa County states that agricultural land cannot be subdivided for any sort of residential development. It's been this way forever, since it's generally agreed upon that keeping some agriculture alive in the Grand Valley is a Good Thing. But there's been a radical change in county government in the last few years. There's now a proposal afoot the change the zoning of the Palisade area to residential status. The people who have proposed this won't come right out and say this is what they want to do, of course. They've proposed a new type of zoning, called "Rural Performance Zoning." The problem is that so-called RP zoning is basically indistinguishable from normal residential zoning -- it's just been given that name to make it more palatable, I guess.

If Rural Performance zoning becomes a reality, landowners would be allowed to subdivide their property into 5-acre lots. This doesn't sound like a bad thing, when you first look at it. People should be allowed to do what they want with their land. 5 acres is plenty for one person, and it should be plenty to run at least a small orchard.

There are several problems, though. Agricultural zoning is just what it sounds like -- that land cannot be used for anything but agriculture. As a result, property values in the Palisade area are fairly low, with taxes that reflect that. Developers and land speculators are generally uninterested in land they can't really do much with. But if, all of a sudden, said land can be developed, property values and subsequent taxes will rise. Current estimates are that the average grower's land values will triple or quadruple if RP zoning becomes law. Farming and winemaking in the Grand Valley is, in a good year, about a $45 million dollar a year business. But if you break that down into individual growers, it's not wildly profitable. If taxes were to rise, even a bit, that would be enough to put all but one or two of the valley's growers out of business.

The other problem is that developers can pretty much do what they want with their 5-acre lots. Sure, that 5 acres could be a small orchard. But, it could also be a subdivision. When you have that many houses that close to working farms, the USDA places a lot of restrictions on those farms, relating to how they may spray their crops, how far apart their trees have to be, etc. So even those growers that don't sell off their land or subdivide may find that they can't operate their farms after all.

I really can't figure out why this is an issue. Many people in the Grand Valley are alarmed at its rapid rate of growth, and local politicians have found it wise to at least pay lip service to the idea of restricting growth. Plus, the Grand Valley is very large. There are a lot of area yet left undeveloped. I'm not suggesting that they should be, ideally, but there are plenty of places to direct growth other than our last remaining agricultural area. I really don't have an explanation to share with you as to why the people who are suggesting this think it's a good idea (several of them are developers, which should be a clue, and the two county commissioners who support them both moved here within the last two years, so take that was you will). LOTS of people are pissed, though. I mean, if any other industry worth $45 million a year wanted to move into here, Mesa County would roll over and do tricks for them.

Besides their monetary values, peaches are psychologically important to the Grand Valley. People really care about them, and the way people feel linked to the land and agriculture around here is not something I've experienced anywhere else I've lived. There's a lot of pride tied up in them, and even after they move away, many Grand Valley natives keep track of how the peaches are doing [4]. But once they're gone, that's it. There's no bringing them back.

There's a series of public hearings on this issue set for next month. This is the only chance many of us who care about the peaches and about agriculture in general have to possibly save them (due to weird restrictions in county law, this isn't the sort of thing that can put to a vote of the people). I've never been to a public hearing in my life, but I plan to go to these. I can't let the peaches go without a fight.

Some links:

Photos from the Western History Collection at the Denver Public Library:

Grand Valley peaches, circa 1910

A GV farmer and his crop, also circa 1910

Picking peaches in Palisade, 1907


Colorado Wine Country (not peaches, but the vineyards are in danger, too)

Save Palisade FruitLands, the official website


[1] If you've never had fresh garlic, I recommend that you do. Although all garlic is good, I was surprised at the difference in how the fresh tastes. It's very delicate-tasting, but at the same time, much, much garlickier (sp?). It's hard to describe.

[2] Never the Summer Olympics. God knows why.

[3] Statistics from the Save Palisade website (see above)

[4] Last year was a pretty depressing year. I was having a really hard time dealing with a lot of things, and when I found out last spring through the net that frost had killed 99% of the peach crop, that was just another heavy log on the pile. I was so depressed.

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