With all of the attention that's been focused on urban sprawl in the past year, it's easy to forget that half of Colorado's land -- 32.5 million acres -- is given over to agriculture. Although the majority of the state's 29,500 farms and ranches produce meat animals or the crops to feed them, Colorado orchards grow nineteen million pounds of peaches annually, the tenth-largest crop in the nation, according to the state department of agriculture. Only pears and tart cherries produce more in the fruit category, but neither have the same fuzzy appeal as a perfectly ripe peach.
To celebrate the bounty of Western Slope orchards -- there are a dozen major ones and several smaller plantings in the vicinity -- the tiny town of Palisade throws a daylong homespun Peach Fest every August, when the fruit is at its peak. Events in and around the park in the middle of downtown include a pancake breakfast, a recipe contest, a parade, a Big Beauty Peach Contest, a peach-eating contest and a concert to benefit the local migrant workers' center.
"In addition, we'll have between 80 and 85 vendors in the park and music all day long," according to Jeannine Opfal, executive director of the Palisade Chamber of Commerce, "and all the fruit stands in the surrounding area will be open. Conditions are right for another bumper crop this year, so there will be plenty of peaches available."
August 18 marks the 33rd annual Peach Fest, but the harvest celebration goes all the way back to 1905, when the first Peach Queen was crowned in Grand Junction. Today's fest is a direct descendant of the original Peach Festival, which itself was spawned by Palisade Days, as the event was called in the late 1950s.
Opfal says people tend to arrive at the Peach Fest in waves: seniors in the morning, for the pancake breakfast and parade; families after the parade, in time for the peach-eating contest and activities on Kids' Street; and teens and younger adults for the music in the afternoon.
"Everybody comes out to have a good time," says Opfal. "We've had some of the same vendors come back every year for twenty years now."
That includes the CSU Extension Service, with staff on hand to discuss fruit-growing techniques or any other agricultural concerns.
This year's focus is on the recipe contest, because the food editors of Better Homes and Gardens Hometown Cooking magazine will be on hand and will feature the winners in next year's August issue. (If you just can't wait for some prize-winning peach recipes, log on to www.palisadepeachfest.com, where you will find twelve years' worth of grand-prize and first-place Peach Fest honorees.)
Two special events are just for locals: On Thursday night, the chamber of commerce throws an ice cream social complete with peach ice cream and dancing, at Third and Main streets as an advance thank you to the 2,500 townsfolk about to be overrun by 10,000 festival-goers. To handle the influx, half of Main Street will be closed and parking will be available at the nearby high school, with shuttle service to the park.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, the winner of the hotly contested Town Grouch contest is announced. Earlier in the year, townspeople nominate each other for the honor and "vote" for their favorite with cash donations. Whoever raises the most money selects the charity to receive the funds and reigns as Town Grouch for the next year.
The popular band Chupacabra will play its particular brand of salsa at the Grande River Vineyards at 6 p.m. The $8 admission charge goes to the Mesa County Child and Migrant Worker Services.
"The center is very active in the community because we have so many orchards that employ seasonal workers," explains Opfal. "The concert is part of the vineyards' summer concert series, so we're happy to have them participating."
Peach Fest is officially over with the end of the concert, but a few Sunday activities are also on tap. The eleven local ministries hold an ecumenical service in the park; the recreation department sponsors a softball game; and, since it is Colorado, the local bicycling club organizes a tour around the orchards.
Palisade offers little in the way of accommodations -- just two small hotels and a few bed-and-breakfasts. But the major metropolitan area of Grand Junction is a mere ten miles down the road, so lodging is not a problem for out-of-towners looking for a juicy slice of rural America.
After peach pie, what? Among the prize-winning recipes on the Peach Fest Web site are melbas, mousses, butters, syrups, cinnamon rolls, sorbets, jams, cakes, breads, candy, pizza and chicken salad (honest!). Then there's this first-place winner from 1998, Patrick Casey' s Poached Raspberry Filled Peaches:
12 medium peaches
18 oz. fresh or frozen raspberries, unsweetened
12 packages sugar substitute
Blanch peaches, cut in half, remove peel and pit. Place in 8x8 pan, fill peaches with raspberries, sprinkle with 10 packages of the sweetener and place in oven. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes. Meanwhile, take remaining raspberries and mix in blender with the remaining sweetener. After removing peaches from oven, spoon raspberry sauce over them and bake again at 375 for 15 minutes.