Less than three years shy of a century ago, frequent late spring frosts caused apple orchards to yield little more than sour grapes for growers in the Arkansas River Valley. But sour cherries are another story.
In 1922, a survey “Orchard Survey of the Arkansas Valley District” by Fort Collins-based Agricultural Experiment Station of the Colorado Agricultural College stated, “It is doubtful if commercial apple-growing in the district will ever become profitable outside of a few favorable localities. The sour cherry industry, however, is capable of considerable expansion.”
The more than 97-year-old survey defined the Arkansas Valley District as farmland along both sides of the Arkansas River from Cañon City west to Lamar thereby encompassing parts of Fremont, Pueblo, Crowley and Otero counties.
So given the conclusion that there was profit potential, why don’t sour cherry tr, es proliferate the Arkansas River Valley? The answer: They did in the 1920s.
The 1922 survey stated that the Avondale area alone had 2,550 sour cherry trees. But since then there came to be almost none in the Arkansas River Valley.
That is, until mid-April of this year when Dan Hobbs, lead co-op development specialist with the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, headed a team of experimental growers who planted 445 sour cherry trees on two acres located in the vicinity of Avondale, or “under the Bessemer Ditch next to the Badger Hills of Avondale” – that’s how Hobbs describes the location.
He is reluctant to give a more precise description until he decides to open a fruit stand near the property in just a few years.
Funding for the experimental orchard came in the form of a two-year $30,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “Farm experimentation is very important now given our changing climate,” Hobbs said.
According to Hobbs, the sour cherry industry of the 1920s failed partly because of the relatively short lifespans of sour cherry trees – about 20 years — and partly because growers couldn’t identify markets for the fruit. Sour cherries are smaller than regular cherries and, as their name implies, are less sweet.
Yet Hobbs insists sour cherries, which originated in Europe and southwest Asia, are ideal for pies and preserves. Their juice is also a nutrient-rich sports drink that might increase strength and reduce muscle soreness for a more intense workout. Hobbs intends to sell the cherries from the experimental orchard mainly to the foodservice industry in frozen, dried and fresh forms – in that order of volume.
The sour cherry trees were planted 10 feet apart in rows separated by irrigation ditches – a pretty dense configuration. Each tree should yield between 36 and 44 pints of cherries when it matures (three years after planting).
“That’s if the birds don’t get at them,” Hobbs said, adding he plans to net each tree to prevent fruit loss.
Hobbs also plans what he called a “light harvest” of the cherries next year. He hopes to use young people – college students for example – as labor to pick the cherries while they learn about agriculture.
There is an early growing season for the sour cherries, with blossoms appearing in April and the fruit being ready to harvest in late June or early July.
Hobbs said he would eventually get to a point where he might invest in tree-shaking equipment rather than picking the fruit by hand. One drawback to the tree-shaking method is it can cause damage to the trees.
The fruit also requires relatively little water. Hobbs said the sour cherry trees are irrigated only once every nine or 10 days. “They don’t like to get their feet wet,” he said.
Hobbs believes the relatively small area the trees take up, the early harvest and light irrigation should make the sour cherry industry attractive to Arkansas Valley growers. Also, as the 1922 survey reported, the valley’s sandy soil is well-suited for sour cherry production.
Eight species of grasses will be planted around the trees to attract honey bees and other pollinating insects to ensure good harvests, Hobbs said. He also intends this fall to plant 80 mulberry trees grown from cuttings of older mulberry trees that have existed on the experimental farm since at least the 1920s. The mulberries will get even more fruit production out of the two-acre experimental field.
Hobbs said he plans to hold workshops for Arkansas Valley growers on his sour cherry and mulberry trees this fall and plans to publish a growers’ guide in November.