Now I’m on the other side: the people who grow organic fruit.
Being fruitgrowers was never our dream. We didn’t set out to save the world, one organic pear at a time. But in the past three years, Eric and I have learned a lot: About what sustainability really means – nurturing both the land and the people who work it – and just how elusive that is. About the cycles of fruit trees and the fickle, picky nature of American consumers. And about letting go, how to simply be with the things beyond our control.
In our first growing season, I confided, tearfully, to my friend, Salida poet Jude Janett, “I feel as if everything is breaking.”
She laughed. “Breaking open,” she said. “Not down.” As a thank-you for her insight, a year later, I wrote a poem:
I Have Found No Better Teaching than May’s ripening apricots,
rose cheeked and hail pocked,
unsellable & sweetening anyway.
It was the middle of May, 1997. In our red canoe, Eric and I paddled the Gunnison River from Delta to Bridgeport. I recall little from that day trip except these three things: It was very windy. We ate Pringles for lunch. And we paddled past an orchard deep in the canyon and said to each other, “Wow, look at that! Who would ever do that?”
How do any of us choose to do what we do? Every day, so many choices. Should I wear the red shirt or the green? For dinner, stir-fry – or burritos? And shall we buy that 184-acre orchard?
What are we capable of? What’s our willingness to risk? And what kind of life do we want to live? These are the questions that really matter. And so it is that without knowing squat about trees, fruit, labor laws, the Spanish language, or marketing produce, Eric and I chose farm life in 2007, purchasing the orchard we’d seen ten years before.
And Shall We Cross It? Between tonight and starlight
10,000 times 10,000 choices,
like this one fallen on the floor in front of us,
a thin red stripe that invites.
Was it here yesterday, flouncing along
the invisible edge of no and yes?
Where did it hide in the accordion folds of now?
And shall we cross it?
So we toe the moment.
And what? Retreat?
Run headlong and leap?
Or waltz another round
on the shrinking stage of maybe,
this once-comfortable place
where the feet still know
We never thought we’d be farmers. I am a poet and writer; Eric was a builder and project manager. Our fruit-growing career began by circumstance: We fell in love with a piece of land.
The orchard is a green dominion alongside the muddy Gunnison; the Dominguez Canyon’s red sandstone walls, with their slowly eroding slopes, dominate its every horizon. Tucked between cliffs (small dunes of flesh-colored sand hide), their gulches littered with volcanic rock and petrified wood, their walls pocked with barely visible rock art. Though the orchard itself feels abundant and fertile, all around it are reminders that everything transforms.
Surely, we have transformed, as well.
We initially looked at the property – known on old maps as Peeples, the name of its original “settlers” – as a real-estate investment. It was dramatic and remote, had plenty of water rights, and boasted three decrepit houses, a barn stuffed with trash, heaps of rusted cars, an inventory of unusable tractors and implements, and piles of dysfunctional irrigation parts. It was perfect. Eric loves a challenge. He got one.
Dysfunctional properties are Eric’s specialty. He finds forlorn and fatigued properties and works the land and infrastructure until they’re revitalized. The only drawback to the orchard: Its trees. Nearly 20,000 fruit trees on 75 irrigated acres. Apricots. Apples. Nectarines. Peaches. Pears. Cherries. We didn’t know a thing about trees. We knew land. Intimidated, we pulled back.
A year passed, in which we did nothing. But with time’s passage, our ignorance about fruit-growing seemed less daunting.
Eric hadn’t found another project in the meantime. So we convinced ourselves we could learnabout peaches and pears. We would hire a manager and continue to live in our home on the San Miguel River in Placerville, two hours south.
How little we knew.
Our neighbor upstream on the Gunnison, a second-generation orchardist who had just handed over his own orchard on to his son, heard about our plan to operate New Leaf Fruit remotely. He raised an eyebrow. He didn’t say then, “We’ll see about that.” He saved his words until later. Until well after Eric moved there.
Seeing I Am the Problem,
I Look Out the Window I want to swallow the rainbow
and learn how to bend like that.
The move was gradual. First Eric’s clothes were gone from our bedroom closet; then, his tools moved out of the garage, and his computer out of the office.
Eric leapt headlong, but it took me a few months longer, waltzing in that shrinking stage of “maybe,” to embrace the obvious: The orchard was not an investment.
It was a commitment. Our summers would no longer be filled with climbing the San Juan mountains knee-deep in lupine, nor running rivers, nor camping in snow-cradled alpine cirques. That was the old life. Summer’s new activities involved hanging pheromone-mating disruptors in apple and pear trees, fixing tractors, thinning apricots and repairing micro-sprinklers.
In the months leading up to the orchard purchase, Eric had worked to clean up the contract, researching water rights and untangling access issues – most especially with the non-communicative Union Pacific. To get to the property, one must cross the railroad tracks that also bisect the neat orchard rows. The trains, captained by yellow engines, carry coal, scrap metal, sawdust and empty freight cars all hours of the night and day. The railroad administration has constructed a nearly impenetrable wall around its higher-ups. But Eric was persistent, and in March, 2007, we signed on the dotted line.
Meanwhile, I researched the world of fruit-growing, forging contacts with orchardists, soil scientists, marketers, packers, government officials and potential employees. I learned about organic certification and cultivation – how every grower does it differently. I learned why Colorado’s peaches are sweeter than California’s (it’s the cold nights).
I was learning that life as an orchardist was every bit romantic as it had seemed, viewed several years earlier, from the river. It’s all about making sweetness out of sunlight, water and soil. But, like all successful romances positioned to flower into lifelong relationships, it takes a lot of work.
Meet Me There in the Cherry Rows O and the cherries, arced boughs of cherries
past red, scarlet stain on our fingers,
palms, lips, and chin and the joy that rises then
and the walls—whichever ones we’ve built—
come down for the juice of it,
crimson sharp seize of it, blood singing yes
of it, wall-breaching mmmm of it,
blessings, such blessings, such blessings
take root and let’s bow to brief sweetnesses
praise fleeting ecstasy,
give ourselves up to this garden.
Some moments could be torn from a storybook: Eating ripe Bing cherries from the bough; walking through pale pear blossoms like a “little mist of fallen starlight,” as poet James Wright once said. Listening to the buzz of the honeybees. Swimming in the river at the end of the day. Biting into peach after peach after tree-ripened peach.
And then there’s the work. Work. Work. Work. It is one thing to own an orchard. It is another to operate it, day after day after hard, long day. Starting out, we had three things going for us.
One: We had no preconceived ideas of how an orchard “should” be run. There was no chance to fall into mindless tradition: “I prune that way because my dad pruned that way because his dad pruned that way….” We got a clean start, making our decisions by drawing on the experiences and research from other growers and scientists.
Two: Eric can fix almost anything. The biggest job at the orchard is its constant cycle of repair. Tractors, pumps, pipes, sprayers – everything breaks. Every day, Eric puts on his fix-it gloves and makes the equipment run right. He hates it. He’s great at it.
Three: Can-do attitude. But knowing nothing has its problems, too – most especially when solid answers are elusive. For instance, how best to fertilize an acre of peaches? A foliar application of fish oil? Spread chicken manure? Plant dwarf white clover as a green manure? No two orchardists or scientists gave us the same answer. Bottom line: one answer cannot fit all orchards. With variability in soils, pests, climate and trees, there’s some science protocol, but there’s a lot of art (and luck) when it comes to generating one of what may be many partially right answers. There is no silver bullet.
What trees to plant? What rootstocks to use? How much water to apply? Which sprays? We are finally learning how to formulate our own answers, based on our own brief experience. Amidst the ambiguity, however, everyone agrees on two points: If you are going to be a successful grower, you put growing first. And you can’t control Mother Nature.
Dominguez Canyon April 4, 2009 I wandered the canyon lined with snow,
through brown apricot blossoms that will not fruit
and startled the starlings, one hundred or more,
into swirls of black flight, oh shiver, oh low angled light,
oh world I am yours, I crumble like cliffs,
I am yours, I am praising your all that is:
these barren trees, this wind, these lips,
the song inside us that rises like starlings
regardless of chill, of petal turned dust.
Praise the soft laughter of purple mustard blooms,
this damp perfume that lingers
the morning after the killing frost.
When it comes to learning to the fine art of letting go, running the orchard is a 75-acre Ph.D. program. Sure, we can decide whether to plant our cherries on Mazzard or Gisela 6 root stock. We can choose concentrated vinegar over hoes to control bind weed. But we can’t control frost. We can’t control late season hail. And when 4,000 new peach trees start die, it’s no good pointing fingers. Salvage what’s salvageable. Learn what you can. Give thanks for what you have. Move on.
When I write a poem, I sometimes think I know the end before I start, and try to steer the poem in a certain way, toward a certain truth or discovery. These poems seldom succeed. As Denver poet Kathryn Bass says, preconceived endings are a kind of “emergency exit” that we create so that we might eject ourselves from the poem before the poem is necessarily ready to let us out.
I’m glad Eric and I haven’t pressed the eject button on our orchard. In embracing this new kind of Colorado life, our days measured by the opening stages of buds and the color of the fruit, I’m happy. I feel lucky to live so intimately with the land. And I think perhaps I’m finally learning to embrace the ways things break.
Open, of course. Not down.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer is poet laureate of San Miguel County. Her newest books include Holding Three Things at Once (a finalist for the 2009 Colorado Book Award) and Intimate Landscape: The Four Corners in Poetry & Photographs.
PHOTOS BY BRETT SCHRECKENGOST