In the southwestern corner of Colorado, thousands of historic apple trees dot the landscape, producing an estimated 50,000 bushels of fruit that currently go to waste.
Dolores, Colorado In the southwestern corner of Colorado, thousands of historic apple trees dot the landscape, producing an estimated 50,000 bushels of fruit that currently go to waste. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

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MORP Announces Property Purchase for Orchard Restoration Project

In the southwestern corner of Colorado, thousands of historic apple trees dot the landscape, producing an estimated 50,000 bushels of fruit that currently go to waste. Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP) hopes that one day soon all those apples will be turned into juice. This hope is one step closer to reality as they have now acquired a new property to serve the community as an “Orchard Hub”.  The property purchase was made possible through a successful capital campaign with major support from The Nature Conservancy, Gates Family Foundation, Kenney Brothers Foundation, El Pomar Foundation, Onward! A Legacy Foundation, and individual supporters of MORP.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has partnered with MORP on both the purchase of the property and the restoration efforts. The 36-acre property located just north of Cortez provides a place to launch the on-the- ground efforts MORP began contemplating more than a decade ago. The partners plan to demonstrate water conservation in orchards while saving Montezuma County’s rare and endangered apples and turning them into a value-added product, such as juice or cider. This work will preserve the area’s unique heritage while providing local farmers with a reliable income for their fruit for the first time in a generation.

Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project was started with a goal to preserve Colorado’s fruit growing heritage and restore an orchard culture and economy to the southwestern region. In the early 1900s, apples were a big part of the economy in southwestern Colorado along the Dolores River. In fact, apples were once Colorado’s main fruit crop. But over time, apple orchards gave way to hay, alfalfa and other crops that were more lucrative—and also more water intensive.

“Bringing back apples is not only about preserving the past,” said MORP Co-Director Jude Schuenemeyer. “Apples use less water than other common crops in the area, and historic, wide-spaced orchards provide habitat for native pollinators, wildlife and plants. By testing irrigation strategies and looking into reviving apple production, we can increase the understanding of how to best provide food and manage water sustainably for the area.”

MORP plans to convert their 36 acres from flood-irrigated pasture grass back to an heirloom apple orchard. There, The Nature Conservancy will help MORP improve irrigation efficiency and showcase efficient water use practices, such as drip irrigation and soil moisture monitoring, to local farmers. By planting native grasses between the trees, like buffalo grass and blue grama, the soil will hold in more moisture and the whole area will become more resistant to drought.

The Nature Conservancy became involved in the project as a way to investigate and test options for switching crops to conserve water.  Crop switching can be a tool to benefit both rivers and the rural communities that depend on them.

“We are excited to support MORP’s efforts to address water use and community resiliency,” said Celene Hawkins, Western Colorado water project director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado. “This partnership will enable us to learn more about the benefits of crop switching and what it could mean for water use in southwest Colorado.”

MORP is also involving the local community at every step of the process. By building a classroom, hosting community events, working with Americorps volunteers and partnering with local farmers, the organization is aiming to make orchard cultivation replicable for others in the region.  This new property will be a hub to make this work possible.

“I see this as a community-based project that supports local agriculture, while also helping the region think about its options in an increasingly dry future,” added Hawkins.

MORP is also using the historic orchard property to create a genetic bank for the rare heirloom apples they’re saving. All these efforts are pointed toward reviving the apple economy on a broader scale.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.