by Tori Sheets
A special project is crusading for apples on the Western Slope. The Apple Core Project is a team of two passionate apple advocates from Norwood who are mapping and documenting the history of heirloom fruit trees in the area.
According to project founder Jen Nelson, heirloom apples have the potential to be an economic boost for farmers on the Western Slope. Melanie Eggers is Nelson's partner in the endeavor.
Heirloom apples have not been genetically modified like most modern apples, so they have a higher nutrient content. The unique growing conditions on the Western Slope also cause the apples to be sweeter.
"At high elevations part of what makes any Colorado apple special is that they sweeten up, and the increased ultra violet light causes the nutrient content to nearly double," Nelson said.
Modern apples, like the red delicious apple, have been modified specifically for their appearance, so the flavor wanes over the years. The sweetness of apples is a key factor in cider production, and Nelson said cider makers are hungry for Colorado apples.
Part of the Apple Core Project's goal is to educate communities on how to graft apples.
"Apples don't come through the seed, so they have to graft or bud to have the same type of apples," Nelson said. "So we're grafting through the old trees and putting them in parks and schools and selling them to the public and giving some back to the landowners."
The apples grown in the Norwood, Nucla, Naturita and Paradox areas are already being sold in farmer's markets. Right now an orchard owner can sell about 10 percent of a crop for around 50 cents a pound to farmer's markets and specialty grocery stores. The other 90 percent of the crop can be sold for about 10 cents a pound for creating cider and apple juice.
"We're trying to convey that it's an opportunity for economic development," Nelson said. "First the education has to happen."
Ouray has a special connection to apple orchards. The Apple Core Project has not mapped or researched any trees in Ouray County, but at one time the county was home to one of the largest apple orchards in Colorado.
The Ashenfelter Orchard was located on Spring Creek Mesa south of Montrose. John Ashenfelter came to Ouray around 1882 and built an empire in Ouray County. In 1894 he purchased land and planted a 400 acre orchard of apples and peaches.
According to an article in the Ouray Herald, in 1903 Ashenfelter sold his entire crop to a buyer in Chicago for more than $12,000. The apple crop was estimated to be around 6,000 bushels and it was shipped via rail on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad out of Montrose.
During the growing season Ashenfelter employed 15 people, but when harvest time rolled around he hired 83 workers to pick and pack the fruit into fruit boxes constructed at the property. In 1903 Ashenfelter won 47 horticultural prizes at the Inter-state Fair. At the Colorado State Fair he took first place for the best and largest collection of perfect fruits, and second place for best collection of apples.
Nelson said Ashenfelter's trees were slowly removed over time until just 40 acres of an orchard remained. She said there may still be a few trees left, but she hasn't spent time mapping trees in the Montrose area yet.
Nelson said she would love to inspire someone from the Ouray area to begin mapping and collecting historical research and documentation about the trees in the county.
"Even one person would be helpful because there are quite a few trees out your way that are hundreds of years old," Nelson said.
The Apple Core Project recently received the Paradox Community Challenge Grant. They are also coordinating fundraisers for the project. The next event will be on Oct. 8 at Naturita Park. It will be an all-day all-apple festival with apple tasting, a pie bake-off, gold panning and other activities.
To learn more about the Apple Core Project or to contact Nelson, go to www.applecoreproject.org.