Sweet, albeit late, harvests across the state
Though Colorado-grown produce will hit metro grocery stores in about 10 days to two weeks later than usual, Michael Hirakata said he expects an abundant and sweet harvest.
He said weather this week has been in the triple digits, a change of pace after a cool and wet spring, welcomed by those awaiting harvest.
“Everything is looking pretty good,” Hirakata said. “We’ll pray for good weather and if it stays hot and dry like it is, we’re going to have some exceptionally sweet fruit this year. They’re setting some really good sugars in the watermelons right now.”
Hirakata is a fourth-generation farmer in the Arkansas Valley where his family operation grows produce, including the watermelons and cantaloupes the area made famous. In his role, Hirakata oversees field operations, labor and some marketing.
The labor situation, he said, has been a bit less cumbersome than some years. H-2A workers were brought in after a two-week delay but things have since gone smoothly. There is less flexibility with the program, necessitating extensive planning and little wiggle room. The balance of workers are hired locally to fill a harvest crew of 90 to 110 workers.
“A lot of people who have rentals don’t want to rent for only three or four months out of the year so we really have to shore up these apartments year round to make sure we have housing for our guys,” he said. “It’s one of the most challenging things to have enough housing for the workers.”
He expects harvest to begin in earnest in a week to 10 days, with the majority of the bounty bound for the Front Range grocery store chains.
Gail Knapp, who runs Knapp’s Farm Market in Rocky Ford, said she was pleased to have cantaloupe on opening day of the stand, not something she expected given the spring weather. Like Hirakata, she anticipates they are about two weeks behind. Knapp said the market currently has Rocky Sweet cantaloupes, Dove melons, onions, sweet corn, green beans, three kinds of squash, pickles, slicing cucumbers, red beets, cherry tomatoes, eggplant and okra from their own fields. They also have Colorado fruit, tomatoes, and watermelon from other growers.
Labor, she said, has also been smooth this year. The H-2A workers employed by Knapps tend to be the same each year, with little turnover, a trend she hopes speaks to how the family does business. At the farm market, Knapp is flanked by her sister, daughters, niece and granddaughter, along with a few close family friends.
“We’ve got a nice crop and hope that the summer proceeds without any bad weather,” she said. “We’re looking forward to getting some stuff shipped to the grocery stores.”
Bruce Talbott, of Talbott’s Mountain Gold in Palisade, said he anticipates that the peach crop is one of the best in years. Peaches and grapes are also about 10 to 14 days later than last year, which doesn’t have too severe an impact on marketing, as it might for some other crops. Talbott said growers in Cedaredge experienced three hail storms, damaging apples and peaches in the area.
“The peach industry has gone, by and large, to H-2A, meaning we have Visa guys and we pay dearly but it’s a fairly secure environment,” Talbott said. “We have adequate labor but we’re very inflexible. If you run short in the middle of the deal, it’s too bad. It takes 90 days to change anything and by that time, it’s history.”
Talbott said they ship only about 25 percent of their peaches to the Front Range with the majority shipping to the Midwest and Texas.
July 24 is going to mark sweet corn picking for Tuxedo Corn Company in Olathe, also about two weeks later than usual. Jessie Baldwin said they are anticipating good yields to ship to Kroger stores and farm stands across the state. Last year Tuxedo, the oldest Olathe Sweet sweet corn grower in the state, harvested 621,678 cases. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.