Two decades ago, when Jude and Addie Schuenemeyer took on the operations of a nursery in Cortez, Col., they didn’t realize they were about to become horticultural detectives.
Many of their customers, who had lived in southwest Colorado’s Montezuma County for 60 years or more, came in with stories of their grandparents’ apple orchards. They brought in newspaper clippings from state fairs that listed 50 or more varieties of apples, with names long forgotten by the modern produce shopper.
As the Schuenemeyer learned to track down some of the heirloom apple varieties that customers requested using mail-order catalogs, they began to wonder about the stories they were hearing about their region’s robust apple-growing past.
“Our older customers would tell us where some of these trees were,” Jude Schuenemeyer said. “I thought, ‘We can actually find some of these older trees and save them.’”
That was the beginning of what has become the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization the Schuenemeyer founded to preserve heritage apple varieties and to rebuild an apple economy for southwestern Colorado’s future.
The decline of apple diversity
In the 1800s—a time period sometimes called the “Golden Age” of American apples—more than 17,000 apple varieties were grown across the U.S. Today, fewer than 7,500 varieties are grown worldwide, and most Americans are only familiar with a handful of varieties carried by supermarkets.
That shift reflects drastic changes in the way America grew and transported its food that had a visible impact on the landscape of places like Montezuma County, Col.
The decline of the county’s apple orchards is a story the Schuenemeyer have put a lot of time into researching. “That took us years to figure out,” Jude Schuenemeyer said.
Montezuma County is in an extremely remote part of Colorado, at least two and a half hours from an interstate highway. At 6,500 feet above sea level, the region is prone to late frosts.
This remoteness and unique climate led farmers in the area to develop award-winning fruit during the 1800s, but as the country industrialized, and as railroads made it easier to ship apples long distances, all of that started to change.
Farmers were encouraged to plant shiny red apples that sold better in supermarkets and could withstand transportation. But a monocultural orchard—where all the trees bloom at one time—can be disastrous in a high-altitude climate like Colorado, where late frosts can be unpredictable.
As more farmers turned to factory work, the region began to lose its working orchards. With them went a workforce with the skills needed to cultivate apples. Apples do not grow true from seed. To produce a new tree that bears the same fruit, a farmer needs to know the art of grafting.
“You started to see fewer of these smaller orchards, and fewer diverse orchards,” Jude Schuenemeyer said.
An agricultural census found that Montezuma County had 699 orchards in 1925, but only 66 in 2012.
Bringing the past back to life
Schuenemeyer taught himself to graft apple trees from the weathered pages of a copy of “The Fruits and Fruit-Trees of America,” by A.J. Downing.
“I went and found an old copy on a whim,” he said. “I’d look at the page, make a cut on the stick, look at the page, cut myself—but I got to where I could graft reasonably well.”
As nursery customers told them about trees that were still standing along state highways or tucked away on forgotten farms, the Schuenemeyer began to try to identify them and see if they could save some of the celebrated varieties from the region’s past.
They worked with the Montezuma Historical Society, who introduced them to people who could tell them more about the area’s orchard history.
“At first it was documenting on the back of whatever scrap paper was in our car,” Jude Schuenmeyer said. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger. We kept getting cuttings from trees, we had no idea what they were.”
The couple realized they had a full-time project on their hands, so they closed the nursery and organized the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project as a nonprofit organization.
Since then, the organization has been able to use federal grant money to have trees’ DNA tested for a match with known varieties through the USDA’s Center for Agricultural Resources Research in Fort Collins, Col.
Through this testing, the project is able to put a name to trees that may be more than a century old, and that may have been part of the region’s award-winning apple tradition.
Saving apple diversity
The Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project wants to make sure the apple varieties they identify are preserved for the future.
One place this is happening is in what is known as the Gold Medal Orchard. This orchard got its name from the gold medal its fruit varieties won at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. In 2015, Colorado Preservation named it one of Colorado’s “Most Endangered Places.” This marked the first time a landscape, as opposed to a building, was recognized by the preservation group.
The Orchard Restoration Project is now leasing the orchard and working to build a genetic bank of rare apple varieties there. They are using PlantsMap interactive plant tags to identify the trees.
The tags also play a role in the organization’s fundraising. Its “Sustain-a-Tree” program asks donors to commit to a monthly donation of as low as $10 to help fund its education, preservation and planting efforts. Donors can have their names included on the PlantsMap plant page.
The tags also tell the stories of their varieties, like this Montezuma Blush apple, named by Ron and Lisa Bunker, who found it growing along a road while out for a motorcycle drive in 2015.
The funding helps the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project to not only preserve forgotten varieties, but also to rebuild the infrastructure and knowledge needed to sustain an orchard economy.
The group has planted orchards in schools throughout the area and teaches grafting skills to students. It is also working to establish a hub for orchard growers that could provide packing facilities and some of the other infrastructure needed to help growers reach bigger markets.
As consumers start to realize there’s more to apples than Red Delicious, Jude Schuenemeyer hopes they’ll be able to learn about the unique flavors and taste that Colorado’s challenging climate impart on a fruit with a rich history of varietal diversity.
“If people have an ability to try these varieties again, they are going to love them,” he said.
To learn more, visit the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project on PlantsMap.