The Conner family grows Bing cherries in Hotchkiss, Colo.
Photos courtesy of Ed and Laurie Conner
For more information about the Conner Orchards, call (970) 872-3066 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Ed Conner never planned on getting into the cherry business when he was a kid. In fact, the only experience that he got while growing up in Delta, Colo., was when chasing birds out of his Uncle Don Carr’s orchard. That all changed when Ed “bought himself a job” in 1999 thanks to the purchase of a property — which came complete with 25 acres and “a couple hundred Bing cherry trees” — that was located next to his Grandpa Earn Carr’s place. He’d been working at a sporting goods store in Delta, Colo., but gradually, fruit growing started getting to him so he switched to doing it fulltime. “It kind of ruins you to be self-employed,” he admitted, adding that the great price on the property had originally lured him in.
Known for being extra-sweet, when Bings are in season (from mid-June through early August) “people tend to act like bears and will practically eat themselves sick,” Ed jokes. Birds, too, are attracted to the ripened fruit and it’s nearly impossible to keep them away. “Last year I borrowed a computerized bird squawker machine with speakers,” he explained. “It imitated hawks, eagles, owls, and a number of other different predator sounds. It helped, but the birds eventually learned to ignore it. By then, they were pretty tired of eating cherries, though. Some people use a carbon cannon, which blasts loud noises into the air, but the birds get used to that as well.” Skunks eat cherries, too, but when it comes to raccoons Ed had to laugh a little. “They’ll get their buddies to climb up high and knock em’ down for those that are waiting below! You can hear groups of them at night, chattering away.” The trick, he adds amiably, is to “just grow enough for everyone.”
Originating in Oregon around 1870, the Bing was developed by Seth Lewelling, a horticulturist, with the help of his foreman, a Manchurian Chinese man named Ah Bing. As with other types of cherry trees, they are at their showiest during flowering. Loaded with white blossoms and heavy with fragrance, the trees are so beautiful that some areas hold yearly festivals to celebrate them. The cherries themselves are striking, as well, ranging in color from bright red to deep maroon. (Some types even come in pale yellow that’s been “flushed” with red.) Best when eaten raw at room temperature, cherries are high in vitamin C, dietary fiber, and anti-oxidants and can be effective in treating gout, a type of arthritis that causes severe joint pain (especially in the feet). But since Bings are so sweet, it is best to mix in Queen Annes or other types of tart cherries when using them for pies, preserves, or jams.
Because most were planted in the 1970’s, Ed’s trees “are getting kind of old” so he’s been replacing them gradually with new ones since “the fruit is better on younger ones.” Now that spring is here he’s also been busy pruning “in order to keep the trees from growing to the sky.” (They have big root stock, so we “have to keep them cut down.”) Nitrogen is added to the soil as a fertilizer, and to prevent aphids and fruit flies from taking over he’s experimented with putting molasses bait or stem oil on the leaves plus an organic product called Entrust. “Oils in the sprays will smother any eggs as well as stop powdery mildew,” he explains, adding that “mildew is pretty common.” Finally, he waters the trees every couple of weeks depending on the soil and the weather (the source is nearby Leroux Creek).
Besides cherries, Ed and his wife, Laurie, also grow apricots, apples and peaches on their acreage. Weather has had an effect on their harvest and although “Last year was good,” Laurie reports, “due to the late cold snap this year our apricots and cherries have already been hit pretty hard. The apples are questionable, and the peaches are okay. We’re never 100% sure how much we’re going to harvest.” As an additional means to supplement their income, the Conners raise lavender, distilling it for the essential oils and using the buds in lavender-apple fruit leather, bath bags, foot soaps, and a local favorite, lavender hot chocolate mix. Either way, these small commercial farmers have found the means to make payments on their place, and as a bonus they get to do work that they truly enjoy. ❖