How climate change is affecting orchards and cider on the West Slope
Kari Williams owns Snow-Capped Cider outside of Cedaredge, Colorado, where she makes hard ciders exclusively from apples grown in Colorado. She has a unique advantage as a local cider producer: her family grows all the apples that go into her making.
It all started years ago when she got married with a heritage of fruit growing.
“My husband is a fourth generation fruit grower,” said Williams. “The family has been growing stone fruits and apples in the Surface Creek area for 109 years. “
The family’s extensive apple orchards and packing facilities are found in Delta County. At an elevation of 6,130 feet, this is not the most obvious area for growing fruit.
“It’s very unpredictable and it can be very volatile,” she said of growing the fruit at altitude.
According to Williams, they need to be prepared for all kinds of weather conditions, including the likelihood of an unusual frost. The family has an array of protocols to deal with this kind of situation: aggressive pruning throughout the winter, log fires, propane heaters, and wind turbines to warm the air.
“We are doing things to grow here that other growers in other areas just don’t have to think about in order to survive, to grow fruit in this area,” she said.
Williams makes his cider from cider apples grown in Colorado – grape varieties native to France and England. In order to cultivate the fruit, she draws on her family’s hard-earned intergenerational knowledge about tending an orchard on the Western Slope of Colorado.
Williams compares cider apples to wine grapes, in terms of what they add to the end product.
“They are amazing,” she said. But they are also difficult to cultivate. She calls them “cantankerous” and says they are small, produce little juice, and are prone to disease.
She insists that the extra effort is worth it in her family’s Colorado orchards because of the unique qualities that the region’s climate gives to the fruit.
“The flavor is so intense compared to other growing areas,” Williams said. “Whether it’s a sweet tart apple like Honeycrisp or a Dabinett English Cider Apple, I’m telling you it produces a very hyper-expressive flavor. That’s why we’re doing it. It is an incredible fruit.
Horst Caspari is a professor of horticulture at Colorado State University and a state winegrower. He says a combination of Colorado’s high UV radiation, alkaline soils, and snowmelt irrigation explains the fruit’s terroir.
“I think it’s the freshness,” he said. “High mountain air in a food product.”
But from a horticultural point of view, he says it’s impossible to determine exactly what’s in it.
“When we don’t know and we have no explanation for anything else, we call it terroir,” he says. “It’s the soil, the environment. It’s the human spirit, whatever. It is the terroir. It is unique in this place. Exactly what it is … if you knew that, you wouldn’t call it terroir.
But, perhaps the most important ingredient is the variation in temperature between the region’s hot days and cool nights. Caspari says Colorado sunlight enhances photosynthesis, resulting in a higher sugar content in the fruit. Cooler nighttime conditions reduce respiration, allowing the fruit to retain more energy and therefore flavor.
But as the climate changes, these temperature variations become more and more extreme. In 2020, the region experienced one of the hottest October on record and a major frost in the same month.
“We were running 70s, 80s and we should be running 60s or 50s,” Caspari said. “All of our plants were leafing, being happy, for it was nice and warm. And then we went to 14 degrees.
Caspari says this event killed many plants right down to the roots. He estimates that the Great Valley has lost 70% of its various crops.
Talbot is the manager of Talbot’s Mountain Gold farm, where he grows peaches, cherries and wine grapes.
“In the end, probably 40% of everything we have is damaged to the point of shortening the life of these orchards, if there is no need to replace them immediately,” he said.
Like many Western Slope producers, he doubts these weather events are linked to man-made climate change. But he recognizes a central irony: that the same temperature fluctuations that make Colorado fruit so exceptional could become the region’s biggest handicap.
“Extremes in a range are good for us,” he said. “But the extremes outside of this range are going to be destructive to the fruits, trees and vines.”
Back in her apple orchard, Kari Williams says they have replaced 150,000 trees since the big frost of 2020.
“It’s very sporadic where the damage is,” she said. “Whole orchards are dead, whole peach orchards are just brown.”
But other areas of his orchard were hardly affected.
“It just depends on where that cold sets in,” she said.
The trees that were lucky and survived produced a bountiful harvest this year.