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How climate change is impacting fruit orchards and hard cider on the Western Slope

Rae Solomon
Hail netting at the ready at a fruit orchard in Cedaredge, Colorado.

Kari Williams owns Snow-Capped Cider outside of Cedaredge, Colorado, where she crafts hard ciders exclusively from Colorado grown apples. She has a unique advantage as a local producer of hard cider: her family grows all of the apples that go into her brew.

It all started years ago when she married into a fruit-growing legacy.

”My husband is a fourth-generation fruit grower,” Williams explained. “The family has been growing stone fruit and apples in the Surface Creek area for 109 years.”

The family’s vast apple orchards and packing facilities are in Delta County. At an elevation of 6,130 feet, it's not the most obvious area to grow fruit.

“It's very unpredictable and it can be very volatile,” she said of growing fruit at altitude.

Rae Solomon
Kari Williams of Snow Capped Cider examines a cider apple at her family's orchard in Cedaredge, Colorado.

According to Williams, they have to be prepared for all kinds of climate condition, including the likelihood of an unseasonal frost. The family has an array of protocols to handle that kind of situation — aggressive pruning throughout winter, wood fires, propane heaters and wind machines to warm up the air.

“We do things to grow here that other growers in other regions just simply do not have to think about to survive, to grow fruit in this area,” she said.

Williams makes her cider from Colorado-grown cider apples — varietals with origins in France and England. In order to cultivate the fruit, she taps into her family’s hard-won, inter-generational knowledge about keeping an orchard going on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Williams compares cider apples to wine grapes, in terms of what they bring to the final product.

“They're amazing,” she said. But they are also hard to grow. She calls them “cantankerous,” and says they are small, produce little juice and prone to disease.

She insists the extra effort is worth it in her family’s Colorado orchards because of the unique qualities the region’s climate bestows on the fruit.

“The flavor is just so intense compared to other growing regions,” Williams said. “Whether it be a sweet tart apple like Honeycrisp or whether it be a Dabinett English cider apple, I'm telling you that it is producing a very hyper-expressive flavor. That's why we do it. It's incredible fruit.”

Horst Caspari is a horticulture professor at Colorado State University and the state viticulturalist. He says some combination of Colorado’s high UV radiation, alkaline soils and snowmelt irrigation accounts for the terroir of the fruit.

“I think it's freshness,” he said. “High mountain air in a food product.”

But from a horticultural perspective, he says it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what goes into it.

“When we don't know and we have no explanation for anything else, we call it terroir,” he said. “It's the soil, the environment. It's the human spirit, whatever. That's terroir. It's unique to this place. Exactly what it is ... if you knew that, you wouldn't call it terroir.”

But, perhaps the most important ingredient is the swing in temperature between the region’s hot days and cool nights. Caspari says Colorado’s bright sunlight enhances photosynthesis, leading to higher sugar content in the fruit. Cooler night conditions reduce respiration, allowing the fruit to retain more energy and thus flavor.

Rae Solomon
Rows of dead peach trees that were killed during the Oct. 2020 freeze.

But as the climate changes, those temperature swings are becoming more extreme. In 2020, the area experienced one of the warmest Octobers on record and a major freeze during the same month.

“We were running 70s, 80s and we should be running 60s or 50s,” Caspari said. “All our plants were growing leaves, being happy, because it was nice and warm. And then we went to 14 degrees.”

Caspari says that event killed many plants all the way down to the roots. He estimates the Grand Valley lost 70% of its various crops.

Talbot is the farm manager at Talbot’s Mountain Gold, where he grows peaches, cherries and wine grapes.

“In the end, probably 40% of everything we have is damaged to the point it will shorten the life of those orchards, if not required to be replaced immediately,” he said.

Like a lot of Western Slope growers, he’s skeptical that those weather events are linked to human-caused climate change. But he recognizes a central irony: that the very same temperature fluctuations that make Colorado fruit so outstanding could become the region’s biggest liability.

“Extremes within a range are good for us,” he said. “But extremes outside of that range are going to be destructive to fruit and to the trees and vines.”

Back at her apple orchard, Kari Williams says they’ve replaced 150,000 trees since the big freeze in 2020.

“It's very sporadic where the damage is,” she said. “Whole orchards are dead, whole peach orchards are just brown.”

But other corners of her orchard were virtually unaffected.

“It just depends on where that cold settle down,” she said.

The trees that got lucky and survived went on to deliver a bountiful harvest this year.

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