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Conservation Project to Bring Heirloom Apples Back to Western Slope

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Colorado's historic apple orchards along the Dolores River gave way to hay, alfalfa and other crops that were more lucrative - and also more water intensive. (Pxhere)
Colorado's historic apple orchards along the Dolores River gave way to hay, alfalfa and other crops that were more lucrative - and also more water intensive. (Pxhere)
 By Eric Galatas - Producer, Contact
July 15, 2020

CORTEZ, Colo. -- A 36-acre property near Cortez in southwestern Colorado soon will be transformed into a sustainable community apple "orchard hub."

With help from The Nature Conservancy, the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project was able to purchase the land . Jude Schuenemeyer, who co-directs the project, said they'll use beneficial insects instead of pesticides to protect the apple trees, and underneath, there will be a range of native wildflowers to create a safe space for pollinators to refuel.

"You start to create an ecosystem there," he said, "and, within that ecosystem, it's a place where all the different species of bees can be in there without getting sprayed out and killed."

Plans for a hybrid water system, using native grasses throughout the orchard with roots up to nine feet long, will create a natural underground reservoir, conserving water in an area prone to prolonged drought.

The project also aims to restore the region's historic apple varieties that industrial-scale production discarded years ago in favor of mono-culture harvests that can travel cross country. Schuenemeyer said Colorado's booming cider industry, and consumers looking for fruit grown closer to home, should help the orchard become a key contributor to the local economy.

"The pandemic right now has really opened people's eyes, and forced people's eyes open in a way they hadn't been, to where food is coming from and how the food chain works," he said. "So there's just a lot of factors that make this more viable than it used to be."

Within a decade, Schuenemeyer said, he hopes kids who are now learning to manage sustainable orchards in Cortez elementary and middle schools will take the reins and keep the region's agricultural traditions alive and strong.

"They'll grow up knowing the skills of the water conservation," he said, "and how to manage these orchards in a way that is holistic -- that works with the land, that works with the environment, instead of trying to fight against it."

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