For years I made Whiskey Peach "Deliciousness" for friends and family, first from the tree in my back yard in Denver..then later from peaches from the farmers market. Palisade peaches. Because that is what you do in Colorado..you buy Palisade peaches. Years later, nearly 10 years later, before I launched Deliciousness®, I was in charge of a bachelorette party and I happened to pickup a Sunset Magazine and read a tiny column about this place called Paonia with a single photo of a hipster couple picking apples. I announced to my Vegas primed ladies that we were in fact not going to Vegas, but instead we were going to go to the "organic growing capital of Colorado" to stay in a BnB on a farm, have chef cooked farm to table food, tour wineries, pick fruit and dance in probably the only bar in town.
On that trip, I discovered the most amazing fruit I had EVER tasted from orchards surrounded by gorgeous mountains and fields with horses grazing and tractors driving down county roads and yes, the ever important roadside fruit stand. From that weekend on I was in love with Paonia and later this North Fork Valley region would become my primary sourcing region for all of the Colorado fruit we use.
How long has First Fruits been a family farm operation?
Started 1976 with Grandpa (James) (gen 1), then dad (Kevin) and Kris (gen 2), I'm gen 3.
How many family members are involved?
My grandparents, Jim and Dee, bought the first orchard, thinking it'd be a nice retirement gig. They soon found out how much work it is to properly operate a farm. Enter their sons. My dad, Kevin, and my uncle, Kris, were in their 20s and decided that taking on the farm was what they wanted to do. They took on ownership of the business and have since acquired more farmland in Paonia, CO. Kevin and Kris each had large families and we all lived close growing up. Cousins were essentially siblings. We kids would spend summer days sorting cherries, thinning peaches, and traveling to farmers markets across Colorado. So it's a true family farm. I now work full time on the farm. My siblings and cousins help with occasional farm work and markets, too.
What are your responsibilities? The bulk of my duties includes running farmers markets, coordinating partner farms CSAs, restaurant accounts, special order, delivering orders, and some social media. I also spend time in the field changing water, pruning, picking, thinning, chasing deer out of orchards, and all the other random daily tasks farmers have to take on.
Kris Kopp, Kacey's uncle.
Was the farm originally organic or was it converted? How old is the oldest orchard? How often do you have to change out trees?
Dad and Kris understood the value in transitioning to organic pretty much right away. The primary motivation was probably working toward a more healthy farm, but the popularity of organics was also clearly the next big thing in agriculture. Most of our orchards have been operated as orchards long before we arrived. Old photos show Paonia carpeted with orchards. Some orchards have been replaced with homes, but some of our orchards are in places that original settlers planted first fruit trees.
Replanting trees depends on the type of fruit. Cherries can get old and tall and gnarly and they continue to produce high quality fruit. Apples can also be productive for a long time. Other fruits like peaches and nectarines need to be replanted more frequently, about 15 years.
A ribbon indicating a grafted honey crisp limb on a much older tree system.
What are the average seasons?
For Paonia, first cherries are usually end of June. Apricots follow that. Then early peaches and nectarines. Then summer apples. Then fall crops: pears, apples, Asian pears, grapes, etc. Last apples are picked after the first couple light freezes: usually mid-October or so.
Have you seen any significant changes in the seasons/fruit production in the last 5-10 years?
Colorado weather comes with much variability. That said, we definitely see climate change's impact on our local climate. The general assumption is that climate change is marked by gradual warming. This may be true for global average temperatures, but climate change also means more variability. More weird weather. Global weirding is the better term, and this applies at the local level, too. We are talking more unseasonable weather. This is problematic for fruit farming, as a couple warm weeks in the winter can translate to early blooming, only for a cold snap to come along once fruit is in bloom. Combating early blooms and weird weather has always been a part of fruit farming, but now we are seeing more frequent unusual weather. Changing climate ranks among my chief concerns as a young fruit farmer.
In what ways can the weather interrupt or halt the fruition process? Does this affect crop yield?
Weather is a challenge every year --pretty much all year-- when it comes to fruit farming. Frost can kill blooming fruit in the spring. Arctic air masses dipping into the continent in the winter can kill fruit in December, January, February. Rain can split cherries or strip peaches of flavor during summer. Hail can ruin everything. Warm stretches can yield swarms of crop devouring insects. We are constantly battling the weather.
Is there much waste involved with farming? What do you do with it?
It's no secret that farming comes along with a lot of produce waste. We try to make the most of this problem by repurposing unsalable fruit. We give culled fruit to area farmers for their pigs. This often results in some tasty pork chops as compensation. We also compost of lot of sub par fruit. We mix culled fruit with our other composts and we apply this to the orchards. So while there is a good bit of fruit that never makes it to a customer, we try to do a good job of ensuring that cull fruit serves a good purpose.
Where does the waste come from?
Hail, pests, mold, dropped fruit, etc.
Paonia vs. Palisade fruit? What are your thoughts?
Both are great growing climates. Palisade is well known for its peaches because a) they're good! b) the area growers and marketers have done a good job of branding c) they churn out A LOT of peaches. Paonia produces much less fruit, but the quality is as good or even better. Paonia is nestled between the desert and snow-capped peaks that feed our irrigation. This means ultra-fresh, ultra-pure water. Paonia's microclimate also boasts unusually warm days and cool nights - an ideal combo for raising exceptionally tasty fruit. Amazing soil and careful amendment of the soil also plays a major role in producing great fruit in Paonia. Paonia is a special place for agriculture. If I had to chose between farming in Paonia vs Palisade, it'd be Paonia all day. 100%
What is your favorite fruit?
This is tough: tie between nectarines, cherries and Asian pears
What is your favorite fruit that you grow?
A variety of cherries that shall remain unidentified ;)
What is the most under appreciated fruit you grow?
We aren't especially known for our grapes, but they're unreal.
Are your the fruits you grow different than those commercially grown?
We do sell commercially in addition to through our other outlets, but as far as I know all our fruit stays in-state. This allows us to pick fruit only when it is ripe, when the fruit will be at it's peak once the customer takes it home. Commercial fruit has to harvested green in order to allow for transport to sorting, storage (often atmospheric), transport to outlets, then eventually to the customer.
What is the most satisfying part in farming?
Probably watching the fruit itself develop each year: you see tight buds as you prune in the winter; these become beautiful blossoms in spring; then a little green fruit emerges; during summer months the trees pull what is needed from the soil, the air and the water in order to grow fruit and develop flavor; then final stages of fruit development are marked by fruits sizing up while deep colors emerge. I am always amazed by how the trees pull just the right nutrients and building blocks to create such flavorful, beautiful fruits...all in span of several months.
What is the biggest obstacle that the public might not even be aware of?
I am not sure it's one single obstacle, as much as it is how much year-round work there is to be done. Often, people think we fruit farmers just chill out until fruit is ready to pick, then we harvest and take fruit to market where we charge exorbitant prices. Reality is that prices reflect lots of hard work, lots of overhead. Like with most products, produce price often reflects quality.
What do you think will Colorado look like in 5 years?
I'm pessimistic about how Colorado will change in the near future. An influx of too many people seems to pose a threat to the things I like most about Colorado: fresh air, open space, less traffic and bustle than most of the country, pristine mountain regions to explore without running into others. I hope that as more people come to enjoy the good Colorado has to offer, they will also take part in protecting that good.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I'd like to be farming and building my business.
Thank you ever so much Kris and Kacey and all the rest of the Kropps for sharing your time and talents and stunning fruit with us. We definitely hope you are farming in 5 years. And thank you all for reading this..and supporting us and the chain we have developed.
Maura g - RedCamper founder