OLATHE — It’s 2:10 a.m. Thursday morning and Kerry Mattics inspects a thermometer hanging from a deer fence that surrounds her family’s orchard.
“It’s time to go,” he said. “The bottom just fell.”
The mercury had dropped three degrees within minutes as a thin layer of cloud melted away. With the sudden drop in temperature, Mattics boards an ATV armed with a propane torch. In the darkness before him, rows of peach, apricot, and plum blossoms now lie beneath the icy stars, and every degree lost costs him money.
After lighting the propane torch, Mattics goes down each row, lighting wooden barrels filled with wood that he and his workers have been preparing since midnight. In all, Mattics thinks he will use around 10 cords of wood in over 100 burn barrels to prevent his harvest from being a total loss. He must have made the same effort the day before.
Fragile and frail are the blooms of the Colorado fruit tree each April as the colorful buds wait for their pollinators.
While this April is no different, Colorado fruit growers endured sleepless nights this week as frigid spring weather swept through the state.
In the heart of the Western Slope, where peaches, plums, apricots and apples support thousands of livelihoods from Palisade to Paonia, these annual spring dips in the Danger Zone are all about risk management.
In Palisade, Kaibab Sauvage, lifelong resident, fruit and wine grower, had to turn on propane heaters in his 17 acre orchard this week to keep the air around the buds from freezing his crop to death.
“We turn on the heating for our most precious crops, peaches, apricots,” says Sauvage. “We’ve already seen a bit of damage this week.”
Exactly two years ago, on April 14, 2020, a hard freeze with temperatures dropping into the mid-teens hit the West Slope farms hard. That same fall, a hard frost hit vineyards from Mesa County to the North Fork Valley.
Sauvage says every spring can bring frost and frost warnings to West Slope fruit growers, and the best way to mitigate the damage is knowing how to use things like air, water and heat to your advantage.
Propane works best for his orchards on those cold nights. Sometimes a wind turbine that moves cold air up and warm air down to create an inversion can buy a producer a few degrees of insurance. Other times, tapping the sprinklers to carefully add a layer of ice to the trees can help.
“You have to work for it,” Sauvage says. Fruit growing, he says, “is a risk, it’s a gamble”.
Sauvage said his 80 acres of wine grapes will be spared this week’s frost, but added that many winemakers are still recovering from the hard freezes of 2020 and 2021.
Back in Olathe, Mattics struggles to keep the fires under his trees going. It takes about 45 minutes to visit each Burning Barrel in the Orchard to add wood, and by the time he returns to the first, it’s time to start the process all over again. Mattics says he will continue this work until the early hours of the morning, or until “the thermometer starts moving the other way.”
Fires burn in another orchard just down the road and smoke fills the countryside around Olathe, a town best known for its sweet corn. Mattics says only a few fruit growers remain in the area as rising costs and other economic pressures have forced many orchards to close. His own family farm used to grow fruit on over 80 acres above Olathe. Today, the multi-generational farm is down to about 8 acres.
Buds that have already fully opened are most at risk during a freeze. Mattics says that by burning barrels, he hopes to save buds that are still closed or haven’t fully opened. Kerry admits that spending all night tending fires is a lot of work, for potentially little return.
It’s a labor of love to endure cold, smoky nights to keep your orchard from freezing. Like many West Slope farmers, the reward for hard work can be bountiful summer harvests.
“I really like fruit growing,” says Mattics. “It’s fun and I love it, but I don’t know how long I can do it.”
Photos and videos by William Woody, special for The Colorado Sun.