One key element missing from our globalized grocery industry is seasonality. By that, I mean that we can have virtually whatever food we want, whenever we want it. It doesn’t occur to us that tomatoes taste better in August, or that citrus is sweeter and juicier in winter. Our supermarket produce departments know no seasons, and that is a loss – but because most of us have never known true seasonality, we don’t demand it. We should.
Colorado’s Western Slope has long grown most of the stone fruit produced between California and the Midwest, and wine grapes are now in vogue here as well. Make no mistake, though: growing fruit in a high-plains desert more than five thousand feet above sea level, with less than ten inches of total precipitation a year (that’s rain and snow), isn’t easy. Plus, the orchards and vineyards here are tiny, averaging only a few dozen acres; these are micro-orchards compared to those in California and Oregon and Washington, which cover thousands of acres. All of that means when cherries are in season here, often for as little as two weeks, one must act quickly. And so we did, hustling up to Antelope Hill Orchards for the opportunity to pick our own.
Fruitgrowers Reservoir is already nearly dry, and it’s only mid-season.
This season was a tough one for fruit growers in Colorado; most local orchards lost their cherry crop to a late frost. And as climate change has intensified, especially in the already-arid West, farmers and ranchers fight for limited water and try desperately to protect themselves and their land from wildfires. All this bad news means that if we can skip the middleman and pay the growers directly for their fruits or vegetables, like we do at pick-your-own farms, it’s more likely that they might be able to stay in business. (It is positively infuriating to see the big chain supermarkets in the area advertising “Northwest cherries $1.67/lb.” as they were last week. There is no loyalty to local if it’s cheaper to truck them in bulk from the Pacific Northwest; no matter that they’re heavily undercutting growers only a few miles away.)
On a cheerier note, like many other places proud of their agricultural heritage the Western Slope honors its most-loved crops with festivals. Last weekend we hoofed it up to Palisade for the Lavender Festival; Independence Day found us at Paonia’s legendary Cherry Days, a two-day celebration of all things cherry. They elect royalty! They’ve got a classic car show! There’s a woodsplitting contest! A coal-shoveling contest! And a cherry-themed costume contest! Who says small towns don’t know how to party?
Grand Avenue, Paonia. We missed the parade.
Cherry Days Royalty. Eat your heart out, Meghan Markle.
I did not win the Cherry Days Baking Contest. RV ovens are tricky.
One of the things we look forward to most about living here is a pantry and freezer stocked with all manner of fruits and vegetables and meat, grown and raised by people we know personally. We’ve already gone through at least twenty pounds of cherries that we harvested at Antelope Hill; we ate most fresh, gave lots away to RV park friends and I spent an afternoon pitting a few pounds for freezing. If my dehydrator weren’t in storage, that would be running nonstop, too. And now the Colorado cherries are finished. Yes, you can buy cherries in January, but why would you? Cherry season is fleeting, and therefore much more appreciated. There is nothing special about having something all the time. We wait all year for Colorado cherries, and something this good is worth the wait.