Originally published in the High Country Shopper. Republished with permission.
2015 was a tough year for Western Colorado orchards. A spring freeze damaged the majority of the fruit trees, especially those in the Surface Creek Valley on the south side of the Grand Mesa. The blast of cold air rendered many of the orchards literally fruitless.
Despite this devastating and irreparable harm inflicted upon local growers, spirits are high. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a more generous and resilient group of people than those who have dedicated their lives to the craft of orchard cultivation. I spent a day jumping into the passenger seat of various vehicles, trudging through the mud, and chatting on the front porch of some of the most prominent orchards in the Surface Creek Valley.
Wag’s World Orchards
The day started with a morning drive down Nowhere Road. Disregard the name of the road, because the route definitely takes to somewhere special: Wag’s World Orchards. Located in the heart of Eckert, the 80 acre orchard is owned and operated by Chris and Jan Waggoner.
The Waggoners are true entrepreneurs. Not only do they manage the high demands of their orchard business, but they also find time to operate a publication company and provide health care counseling for the elderly and the disabled.
“You are busy folks,” I comment.
“Seven days a week,” Jan responds matter-of-factly.
The origin of Wag’s World is a story of mileage. Rewind to 1994. This dynamic couple were living in Flagstaff, Arizona, busily growing their publishing company. Chris comes from a family of apple growers from Pacific Northwest. Health issues brought Chris’ family from Oregon to Colorado. Feeling the urge to return to the country, the family pooled resources together and purchased the acreage where their Eckert orchard sits now. The transition was not an easy one. For four years, the Waggoners commuted between Flagstaff and Eckert every six weeks to maintain both businesses.
At this point during the interview, Chris excuses himself so he could load a truck to transport to market. Moments of rest are few and far between at the Wag’s World headquarters. Aside from the orchard, the Waggoners own several fruit stands throughout the county and participates in countless farmers’ markets throughout the state. Despite the grueling time commitment and the hard work, the Waggoners wouldn’t change a thing. “You pay a price to live out here,” Jan states. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
There is not an inch of wasted space on the property. Walking around the space will take you through approximately 20,000 trees of cherries, peaches, apples, plums, nectarines, and pears. There is also three acres of garden space filled with cauliflower, onions, eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes – all of which were sold to buffer the fallout created by the freeze. Their garden alone boasts over 1,200 tomato plants. Several buildings are scattered throughout the property too. There is housing for the orchard workers, including three brothers who have worked with the Waggoners for over 20 years. Chris’ mom, who helps sell at their fruit stands, lives on site as well. The Waggoners also own a 1,000 square foot cooler – a recent and necessary addition following the closure of the county’s primary packing plant.
Jan possesses a keen mind for marketing. We dive into a treasure trove of digital photography that she has taken over the years. There are pictures of peaches on scales that weigh over a pound. Or pictures of peaches juxtaposed to baseballs, demonstrating their massive size. Even during their darkest times – such as during the freeze – Jan was there with a camera, documenting every wood-burning barrels used to keep the trees from freezing.
Like those barrels, there is an ever-burning flame of entrepreneurial spirit that keeps Wag’s World a vibrant place.
Down the road from Wag’s World is another local gem: Fritchman Orchards. I find the matriarch, Darlene Fritchman, behind the counter of their packing shed. She graciously introduces me to everybody at her storefront, including her son Erik (who helps farm), her sister Sharon (who is the “top salesperson” at the store), and another local grower Chang Fogg (whose orchard I visit next).
The tour of the shed is brief. Normally, the shed is full of apples, plums, prunes, cherries, and peaches. But the fruit selection is limited this year. Fritchman prefers to show her collage of family photos on the wall. The collage includes a bird eye’s view of the farm, which she and her husband Ellis purchased from her parents in 1975. “I’ve been absolutely delighted to be a part of agriculture and raise my children in this atmosphere,” Darlene beams. Fritchman Orchards, now in its fourth generation, thrives on family.
We hop into Fritchman’s pickup and head off to tour her orchard, which is approximately 100 acres in size and about two miles east of the packing shed located at the lower end of Cedar Mesa. As we arrive on the farm property, Darlene points out a small headstone under a wagon in front of her home. This is the final resting place for her parents’ ashes. “He brought them home to the farm,” she adds. “That’s where they would be happy.” This was just one more reminder how important family is to this entire venture.
Fritchman Orchards lost nearly everything due to frost. During her 40 years in the orchards, this is the worst freeze she has ever experienced. As we cruise around the property, each passing tree is as fruitless as the last one. “It’s not easy,” Fritchman scoffs. “I’ve turned away hundreds and hundreds of customers because my cooler is empty.” Even when we did come across some fruit-bearing trees, the bundle was scant. Regardless, she diligently makes note of each tree that could still be picked for later. “Better get them before the bears get them,” she jokes.
The Fritchman farm is more than trees. This diversified enterprise also includes goats. “Goat meat is one of the most popular meats in the world,” Darlene shares. With an influx of Middle Eastern and Asian migrants to the United States, the marketplace for this meat preference has escalated – so much so that suppliers can’t meet the demand. Fritchman benefits greatly from this unique scarcity.
Fritchman is also not afraid to experiment. With her sharpened sense of science behind orchard agriculture, we pass several alfalfa patches planted to reintroduce nitrogen into the soil for future tree planting. We pass a series of smaller trees near the front of the property. “These are my walnut trees,” Fritchman points out. “I’m just playing with them.” She shares her intentions for other crop introductions like table grapes.
Despite the bad year, Darlene remains optimistic about the future of agriculture. “The population is going to double in 30 years, and somebody is going to have to feed them,” she smiles.
As luck would have it, I met the next grower, Chang Fogg, during my visit to Fritchman’s packing shed. A convenient gap in my schedule allowed me the opportunity to make the impromptu trip four miles north into Cedaredge to visit Fogg Orchards.
Agriculture runs in Fogg’s blood. He is a fifth generation grower. At the turn of the century, his great-great grandparents homesteaded down the valley near Tongue Creek. Purchased by Fogg’s grandparents in the mid-1940s, their current 120 acre plot in Cedaredge has been in the family for three generations. His son, Justin, also works on the farm. When asked if this orchard would live on one more generation, Fogg smirks and responds, “You’re always hopeful of that.”
Fogg’s demeanor is best characterized by how he conducts the tour: nonchalant, no frills, and straight to the point with a barrage of facts. We load up quickly – including his trusty dog, Chloe – and begin to circle the property in his Kawasaki Mule.
Like the other growers, Fogg didn’t escape the freeze. Part of the reason he was available to interview was due to him (in his words) “not having much to do these days.” (If not for this interview, his plan for the day was to clean out the garage with his brother, Scott.) For perspective on how bad the freeze was, Fogg normally produces over 40,000 bushels a year; he only produced 200 this year.
One unique product grown by Fogg is the “EverCrisp” apple. A cross between a Fuji and a Honey Crisp, an EverCrisp apple look more like a Fuji, but yields a much sweeter flavor like a Honey Crisp. This unique hybrid is not widely available in Colorado There is only one other grower in the valley besides Fogg who grows this unique fusion of apples.
Fogg not only grows over seven styles of apples, but he also grows peaches and cherries. On a whim, he decided to grow 700 almond trees this year. “We don’t grow almonds in Colorado,” he laughs. “But I thought that I would give them a try.”
Fogg is a fiercely knowledgeable grower. If given the opportunity, he will explain the exact science behind every organic or mechanical entity on his 120 acre plot. Whether it is his digitally-controlled wind machines or his intricate self-cleaning watering system, Fogg loses himself in the details while he explains them to me.
Unlike Wag’s World and Fritchman, Fogg doesn’t sell his products at fruit stands. He is all about wholesale – that is, if it wasn’t for the freeze, of course. You can tell that Fogg takes his craft seriously by how much he hates to disappoint his customers. I ask if he had any closing thoughts before I saunter off to my next orchard. “My apologies to everybody for not enough apples this year,” he humbly concludes.
Red Mountain Ranches
Due north of Cedaredge, on your way up to the top of Grand Mesa, you will find Red Mountain Ranches on the east side of Highway 65. When you arrive at RMR, you are greeted by a quaint store front. The entrance is pastoral and serene, like something out of painting from the Romance era. Antique windmills. Rustic farm equipment. Wood pallets colored as the Colorado and American flags. All of this, of course, is highlighted by the spectacle of the Grand Mesa hovering over the property. RMR patrons are encouraged to – as their slogan so boldly declares – “taste the difference high altitude makes.”
Red Mountain Ranches is owned and operated by Bob and Roxie Morris, who represent the third generation of this family-owned enterprise. Daughter Laurie and her husband Manuel help run the store and make RMR’s very popular cider. There is also Lucy, the family dog, who watches over the farm and accompanies Bob everywhere he goes. Bob loving refers to Lucy as “his shadow.”
RMR is famous for their cider. If you had asked Bob years ago if he would ever get into cider-making, he would have laughed at you. “I was never going to make cider,” Bob scoffs. He shares a funny story about an impromptu trip to Michigan where the family purchased a press to make juice and cider on a whim. “We’re doing things that I never thought we would do,” he laughs.
The family owns three different properties, totaling about 100 acres. The property that houses the store front is certified organic, contributing to Delta County’s rich and vast organic foods marketplace. The other properties house their traditionally-grown orchards and cider mill. All orchards combined, Red Mountain Ranches produces 15 different kinds of apples. On top of that, they also grow peaches and cherries. Inside the store, you find coolers and shelves filled with cider, syrup, spices, salsa, pie filling, and other bottled delights.
The Morris family hospitably welcome every visitor to their farm. Before I even get the chance to sit down, there is a cup of fresh apple cider waiting for me. The front porch of their store is an ideal environment for conversation and drink, accentuated by the sound of wind chimes in the background.
But what makes the store feel even more inviting is the sense of family that resonates on the walls. “Do you want to know what this is all about?” Bob stops and points to an old picture of him giving his grandson a piggy back ride. He adds, “Everything is about family.” Once your eyes adjust to the busyness of the store, you begin to notice the entire interior is decorated with trophies, photos, and plaques – all celebrating the Morris family. “We’re going to run out of wall,” Laurie laughs, referencing all of the framed pictures adorning the walls.
Despite the day-to-day uncertainty that is inherent in the business, the Morris family wouldn’t want his life to be any different. When asked if he could name one specific day that personified his love of his livelihood, he responds simply, “Every day that I get to spend out in the orchard with my dog.”
Roxie adds, “It’s just a lifestyle that you can’t beat.”
“Anybody who has a garden, park, or orchard has an opportunity to ensure that if offers protection, brings beauty and bears fruit for future generations,” writes Gabriel Hemery in his book, The New Sylva. “In short, every one of us should aspire to be a forester.” I would agree with Mr. Hemery’s statement. The amount of grace, resiliency, humility, humor, and wit that I encountered during my time visiting all of these orchards was overwhelming. Also, the ubiquitous commitment to family is inspiring. If you have time to spare, consider paying a visit to one or more of these orchards. Even if you can’t get your hands on much fruit, the conversations and the vistas will make your visit worthwhile.