Peach trees blossoming at Osito Orchards.
As we gear up for another year in production at MM Local, we’re especially thankful for the relationships we have with our growers. One of the more rewarding parts of our company is connecting with the people who grow great food with such integrity. Each of our growers has a unique backstory, and we recently caught up with the folks over at Osito Orchards to chat about theirs.
Frank Stonaker and Beth Karberg have only been orcharding since February of 2013.
Frank comes into orcharding with a rich background in agriculture, working as an organic vegetable grower before taking on a position for 10 years in the Horticulture Program at Colorado State University. Beth, on the other hand, practiced as a midwife in Fort Collins and did research work water conservation.
After years as a vegetable farmer, Frank felt that growing fruit was the “final frontier.” At peace with his vegetable growing years, he began to dream of the challenge of growing fruit and perennials. His time spent researching for CSU spurred a love of the North Fork Valley, an ideal area for orchards. So, when Frank and Beth decided that they were ready for a change in scenery and profession two years ago, they found the 30-acre plot of land named “Osito Orchards” for sale. They jumped at the opportunity and their journey as orchardists began.
“We thought it would be a great adventure,” Beth said.
An adventure it has been. Osito Orchards is nestled in Western Colorado and has been a family owned orchard for 100 years. They come in as the third owners of the 30-acre plot and tend to trees anywhere from 25 to four years old in age. When they purchased the land, there were a good amount of new trees just coming into production – it felt like a good fit from the start. Their plot is rich with a variety of apple, peach, sweet cherry trees and even a few vines that produce table grapes.
Colorado Grown for Colorado Flavor
Orchardists in Colorado like Frank and Beth are partially able to produce such great fruit in part because of the growing region. They depend on cold, Colorado nights combined with bright sunny days to concentrate sugars in fruit, yielding sweeter, more flavorful produce. They allow all of their fruit to tree-ripen before picking, ensuring even more flavor is imparted to the fruit.
Once they pick it, they ship it fresh.
Beth speaks proudly of the apples that they grow at Osito compared to many store-bought apples that she has had in the past, particularly their varieties of Golden Delicious. Osito actually harbors several varieties of Golden Delicious, one being specially grafted by the White Family and dubbed the “White Gold.” The White Family was one of the original owners of Osito and had a strong tradition of orcharding passed through generations for 100 years. Clearly, they knew what a good apple should taste like. Beth notes that many times when you come across the normal Golden Delicious variety in a store, the fruit is a bit “mushy.” Alternatively, when you get a fresh, tree-ripened Golden, you get a crisp pop of flavor when you bite in. It’s a whole different apple-eating experience.
Selling the Fruit
Despite the satisfaction of growing delicious fruit, life as orchardists has been filled with unknowns. This year, the combination of a warm winter and an early spring has them kicking into gear early on. The unexpected shift of seasons means work in the orchard has come within a condensed time-frame. The two of them work with one other year-round employee, a family of six, and a handful of other workers during the busy season.
Beth describes selling fruit as a “dynamic process.” Unlike vegetable farmers, they don’t know what to expect from their trees until they bloom. Last year, 2014, happened to be a bumper year for their apples, but these trees typically operate in waves – being extremely prolific one year and waning the next. Sometimes the bloom looks to be shaping up into a prolific year just when a cold snap comes through, damaging many promising blossoms in one devastating night. They have learned to “expect the unexpected” with each growing and harvest season.
Some apple varieties, namely their Honeycrisp and Gala apples, are very popular in retail. Heritage varieties are also coming back into demand and Osito has about 12 varieties. However, other varieties, like Golden Delicious, have a bit of a less glamorous reputation, generally due to stores not typically buying fresh, tree-ripened fruit.
It’s difficult to anticipate the quantity of (perishable) fruit that retailers will need at any given time. When the fruit is ripe, it’s ready! If a retailer isn’t there to snatch up the bounty, they need to find more creative ways to move the produce. It’s a bit of a dance.
When they had an impressive surplus of apples last year, MM Local found a way to help out. We took some of this surplus off their hands to make our Classic Applesauce and Jonny Applesauce. The bonus to this of course: solidifying a relationship between our efforts at MM Local and their prolific apple and peach trees.
Sharing the Bounty
Overall, Frank and Beth are enjoying their lives as orchardists. Living on a 30-acre plot of land in a valley surrounded by the beauty of old, twisted trees imparts a bit of nostalgia. While they wouldn’t call the unpredictability “fun,” they know that it’s part of the challenge. Ultimately, they grow great-tasting fruit to share with people who appreciate and enjoy it.
“That’s why we do it,” said Beth. “As much as people enjoy getting to know the farmers, farmers really enjoy getting to know the people. We really value being a part of connecting people to the fruit.”
We’re proud to call them MM Local Farmers and love the rich story and delicious fruit that they bring to our company. It’s a tasty partnership that we’re excited to expand.