Last year was hard for Ela Family Farms in Hotchkiss after a frost took out many of its fruit buds in the spring. And it looks like 2021 could be even more difficult because of another storm that came through in October 2020 and killed about 15 percent of the fruit trees.
"We will know more when things leaf out or don't leaf out," says Steve Ela, a fourth-generation farmer and owner of the orchard. "So far, 15 percent of our acreage appears to be dead, and there are some that are injured. We'll see how it goes."
The loss of trees has already proven extensive enough that Ela decided to suspend the farm's 2021 CSA program, which in normal years sells apples, pears, peaches, cherries and other fruit directly to subscribers. The truth, he says, is that with around 5,000 trees gone, he doesn't know if he will have enough fruit to fulfill the pre-orders a CSA demands, and it seemed better for the farm, his family and the customers to suspend it until he knows the extent of the tree damage.
"We take our CSA very seriously. When we take people's money. we want to make sure we have something to deliver to them," says Ela. "Doing a CSA for fruit is always hard, since we have to open it up to orders before we know what will happen, and if there is a spring frost, sometimes the fruit share is down to the box."
That was the case last year, and the deep October freeze, which came before the trees had hardened for the winter, only made this year more precarious. Trees are meant to weather all the seasons, says Ela, but just as an animal grows a thick coat of fur for the colder months, trees thicken, too, and ready themselves for frigid temperatures. When 3-degree nights came on the heel of 60-degree days in October, the trees were still in fall mode, and the cold penetrated the bark and killed many of them.
"We finally walked around last week and looked at the fruit buds and the trees," Ela wrote in a statement to the farm's customers. "It was a devastating walk."
Ela Family Farms prides itself on the fruit varieties it grows, specializing in produce not often found in the grocery store. In the past, the orchard has grown seven types of plums, thirty different apple varieties, around fourteen peach varieties and two kinds of pears. Cherry trees took the biggest hit last fall; nearly all of them were lost. The plums were affected too, and Ela says he will know more about the extent of the damage in April. Fortunately, it looks like the pear and apple trees survived.
When news of the tree loss reached Ela Family Farms customers, many reached out with support. Some offered to pay for a CSA share even if they got nothing. Others participated in an adopt-a-tree program to help the farm replant. So far, more than 200 people have signed up, which covers replanting almost 200 acres with new trees.
"I'm at a loss for words," says Ela. "It's been awesome. We have had so many people reach out to us saying they signed up for better or worse and that they still want to help us."
Ela hopes to plant more trees this year to help with the future seasons, but, he points out, it takes years for a fruit tree to mature. It's also hard to find trees to plant on short notice, as most orders for saplings are put in a year in advance. As for cherries, he doesn't see planting them again since they aren't economical, though he may add a few just because they taste so good. But even as he plans to replant, Ela is still unsure about the future of the farm.
"It's more worrisome with these big storms due to climate change," he says, adding that drought is another looming problem. "You can't grow fruit everywhere. It worries us for the long term, and we ask ourselves what the fruit industry will look like in twenty years, If you look at Colorado twenty to thirty years ago where fruit was grown, that area has shrunk quite a bit."
On a positive note, says Ela, while there won't be a CSA this year, the farmers' market should be stocked with all the fruit the farm can harvest. Currently, Ela Family Farms can be found at many seasonal farmers' markets. You can also read about ways to support the farm on its website.
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