Even though harvest season is winding down for the Talbott family of Palisade, Colo., it doesn’t exactly mean that brothers Charlie, Bruce and Nathan — fifth generation peach growers — are soon to be taking long vacations.
“People often ask us, ‘what do you afterwards?’” says Charlie, who is in charge of finance and marketing. The answer is simple: everyone continues to work because “there is no input as intense as labor, and these inputs are necessary throughout all four seasons. Each tree is pruned, by hand, during the dormant season. We go tree by tree (over a hundred thousand of them) and branch by branch. Sixty-five to 75 percent of the wood gets removed during the process, but we try to wait to do that until the worst of the cold is over due to the risk of winter kill.” They also plant cover crops like grasses and legumes to help aerate the soil; add nitrogen to balance the alkaline and acid to lower the PH; and they irrigate with a relatively new emitter system which helps to push the salts down. Charlie continues, “There’s no disking, tilling or plowing because that destroys the feeder roots.”
Bruce, who oversees the orchards and vineyards (Nathan takes care of the packaging and processing) says that the “Palisade soil is rich in minerals, but is short on sulfur” so to balance it the brothers add sulfuric acid to the water. The trees are on 300 acres of land that is divided into 5 to 10 acre parcels, so that’s a lot of irrigation. “Originally, a farmer could make a living off of just 10 acres,” he pointed out. “These days it takes about 50 to 100 per family.”
After the trees have blossomed, extra flowers are knocked off, again by hand, in order to prevent branch overloads. “It’s a delicate juggling act,” according to Charlie, for “we want to keep extras in case of frost (which got the flowers on 15 percent of their peach acreage last April), yet eliminate enough to allow for good size on the others. We can’t let the tree end up raising lots of small fruits.” In mid-to-late May, when the peaches are thumbnail-size, the process is repeated yet again as the growers go tree by tree, this time selecting the healthiest of the fruit. “Each 24-inch branch should have only three peaches on it,” and by that point they are really high-quality ones.
Peach growing is different from such crops as pears and apples because those can essentially be harvested all at once. The Talbott brothers try to time their picking for a consistent, daily amount that can be taken to the packing shed, which employs some 35 people during the busiest part of the season along with 50 in the field. This means that each tree is checked three to five times over the course of the 9-12 day harvest period with only the best produce selected each time. (Multiple varieties contribute to create a steady daily volume over a two-month peak period.) Because of the unusual weather patterns this year, however, instead of picking from July 20 through Sept 25 “we’ve had to get started 12 to 15 days earlier,” Charlie says with a little concern. And what happens with any leftovers at the end of the harvest? “There are none on the Number One peaches — there’s such a wonderful demand for them. Secondary peaches are sold to non-commercial markets. The rest,” he chuckles, “get dumped down the hillside for bears.”
The family got started in the fruit business through their great-great Grandfather Joseph Yager in 1907. After his granddaughter married a Talbott, the pair started their own business in the 1950s and became incorporated in 1962. “There is actually a fourth brother,” Charlie joked, “but he was delinquent and became a physician.” (Named David, he’s bought several additional orchards, however, to lease back to the others. “That’s because he was always the slowest picker,” Bruce added teasingly.) They employ 16 or 17 year-round employees, many of whom have been with the company “since our Grandad was running the place.”
What is it about Palisade that is so good for growing peaches? “It’s the climate, which is arid and hot but has a significant swing between day and night temperatures. That’s perfect for nicely-flavored peaches.” Besides what they produce themselves, the Talbotts also process fruit from other Palisade growers as well as from Delta, Paonia, Dominguez Canyon, and other areas.
“We have a shorter season than growers in California, Georgia and South Carolina,” Bruce concludes. “The difference is that they try to control their growth because of so much “canopy” (extra leaves and limbs) whereas we try to stimulate, or make things grow. But our advantage is that we are at 4,600-feet elevation which means higher light intensity. The intense heat of the day helps the peaches build flavor, and the cooler nights help them keep it — so our Colorado weather works as a flavor helper.“ Biting into a newly-picked peach, I’d have to agree. ❖