On an unseasonably cold night last October, Steve Ela tossed and turned in bed, rolling over periodically to check the outdoor temperature on his phone. At around 5:30 a.m., his heart sank when he picked it up and saw that the outside temperature was 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ela, the 57-year-old, fourth-generation grower who runs Ela Family Farms in Hotchkiss, knew there was nothing he could do to protect his orchards from the extreme cold. He felt helpless. But, as farmers do, he got out of bed and started the day’s work, silently hoping his fruit trees would make it out unscathed. He briefly inspected the trees then, but knew he needed to wait until spring to assess the full extent of any damage.
Now, Ela finally understands the devastating consequences of the freezing temperatures that swept the Western Slope on October 27. The farm’s mature cherry trees—three acres worth—are completely dead; four acres of one-year-old peach trees are dead or severely injured; other, older peach trees may be alive, but it’s too soon to tell. The family’s plum trees, pear trees, and apple trees were also affected. “This was the first time I really looked—I’ll be honest, it was partly denial,” he says. “You just really don’t want to know because if you keep your head in the sand for longer, you have this feeling that everything will be fine.”
As winter turns to spring, fruit growers on the Western Slope are grappling with delayed heartbreak. It’s too soon to tell exactly how much the October 2020 freeze will affect this year’s Colorado fruit crop (some growers were hit harder than others based on their location), but so far, growers like Ela are not optimistic.
The same late October freeze also dealt a blow to Colorado’s wine industry, especially white grape growers in the Grand Valley, which prompted Gov. Jared Polis to request federal disaster declaration assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s agriculture commissioner.
Greenberg says her office is still waiting to hear back from the USDA on the requested disaster declaration, which, if approved, would include support for stone-fruit growers in addition to vineyards. But even if help does comes in the form of federal disaster dollars, that still won’t bring back the potentially lost peaches, plums, pears, apples, cherries, and other fruits. “We might not have much of a fruit crop,” says Greenberg. “At the farm level, it’s a cash crop, which means this is how you make money, and if you don’t have the fruit, you’re not going to have the money. Any crop loss like this is going to have a bottom-line impact in a serious way.”
The damage at Ela Family Farms is so severe that it made the painful decision to suspend the sale of shares in its community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program this year. Though CSA sales represent only around 15 to 20 percent of the farm’s income, they provide a much-needed cash flow early in the growing season when expenses are at their peak. Despite the cancellation, Ela says he’s been blown away by the number of people offering kind words and making donations to help the farm stay afloat; many people offered to pay for their CSA share anyway and the farm created “lunch with a farmer” events, personalized tours, and an “adopt a tree” program to help cover expenses. “It’s honestly really humbling and stunning,” Ela says.
Colorado fruit growers say the deep freeze will have ripple effects for years to come. Farmers systematically plant young trees so that when their older trees die off or stop producing as much fruit, they always have healthy, productive trees to take their place. Even if farmers can afford to replace the many dead and damaged one-, two-, and three-year-old trees hit hardest by the October freeze, they’ll still be playing catch-up.
That’s a major concern right now at Rancho Durazno, a 35-acre farm in Palisade where the deep freeze killed some 6.5 acres of brand-new peach trees and damaged many others, including most of the farm’s cherry trees.
“We rotate our acreage in terms of the age of the trees in order to maintain an even spread of young trees, mature trees, and older trees,” says Gwen Cameron, who owns and runs the farm with her father, Thomas Cameron. “What this will mean for our farm is that we’ll end up with a gap in production in a few years when we expected all those young trees to start producing real crops. It’s a problem for us this year, but it’s also going to be a problem for us in the coming years as we try to accommodate for that loss.”
The late October freeze is even harder for farmers to stomach because it comes on the heels of a mid-April freeze, when fruit trees were already budding and highly susceptible to damage from cold temperatures; some growers lost 90 percent of their fruit crop last year. “In farming, we have a big crop loss and then we have optimism—‘OK, but next year, we’ll have a new crop and it will be better,’” Cameron says. “But when you have multiple years of major crop loss like we do now, it can be really hard to recover.”
Growers are more accustomed to dealing with spring cold snaps, which can sometimes be tempered by running huge wind machines that bring warmer air down among the trees and incrementally increase the temperature in the orchard. Fall freezes like this one, however, are unexpected and somewhat unusual. Temperatures dipped so low last October—and there wasn’t any warmer air to pull down—that even running propane heaters and wind machines wouldn’t have been enough to warm up the orchards.