National uncertainty, community hope, and pruning

By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

All winter I’ve been going to conferences, having potlucks, and generally reveling in the amazing farmer community we have here in Colorado. But now it’s time to start farming, which means the fun is over. Okay, that’s not true, but the rolling of the season brings us into a new cycle of long hours and hard work. Just as the buds are beginning to swell, so are the knots in my lower back and shoulders. Hello, spring.

Actually, this is the time of the year when I can’t contain my excitement for the growing season. Winter is a time of reflection and education. As a community organizer, I’ve been living my life one meeting at a time. We’ve been having great discussions about soil health and climate-smart agriculture with a broad spectrum of producers. Big operations and small ones are taking these conversations seriously and adopting practices that conserve water, build soil, and protect our environment. Most of my role models right now come from the world of traditional ag, which I think is a strong indicator of a more progressive attitude throughout agriculture. It makes me proud to be part of this industry and part of the system that sustains the people of this planet. (more…)

Balancing work with work: On day jobs and land hunts

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By Stacia Cannon, Topp Fruit

The juvenile plums were a pale, unappetizing green. Then, almost overnight, the trees were adorned with rich purple, speckled fruit. Naked and new, the plums continue to swell and gain even darker, more brilliant hews. In the orchard and elsewhere it has been a very fruitful year, replete with many successes, but also persistent, grinding challenges.

Balancing an off-farm job with the often unpredictable needs of the orchard is a constant battle. When I’m not ranching I work for a vet, and Harrison works full time for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Harrison has the freedom to work remotely, so most days he drives to his “office” at the orchard, a small makeshift desk and a folding chair on the east side of the barn. With internet access and cell phone reception, Harry has everything he needs, plus a killer view of the orchard overlooking Paonia. Still, our home on the ranch is an hour-and-half away—an already long day is made much more taxing when you add a three hour commute on top of it.

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NYFC’s Western water program director, Kate Greenberg, makes use of Harrison’s “office” at the orchard during a visit last summer. Harrison is picking fruit in the background.

Since the orchard is so far from our home, my ability to help out with maintenance is limited to my days off from working at the vet hospital and the ranch, which makes it really hard for us to get some of the less-essential but still-important jobs completed, such as mowing. When we have a million other things that need to get done at the orchard, mowing doesn’t always make the cut. It isn’t essential and we like the wild and beautiful look of the grasses, but when harvest time comes, the foliage is impossible to navigate with a ten-foot ladder and harvest basket. Living closer to the orchard might enable us to get some of these tasks completed, so we’ve started looking for more land that can be our home place and also help us expand our farming ventures. We’re starting the process with a mixture of caution and rollicking enthusiasm bordering on mania. (more…)

Playing caveman hydro-engineer

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By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

Our day started this morning at 4:30, when we met the crew to move sheep. The sheep are born in the bottomlands near Montrose, a brushy landscape that’s the gateway to the Utah desert. Around mid-May we moved them up to the irrigated fields on a nearby mesa. Today we moved them further up to a leased parcel in a scrubby, mid-elevation forest. We’ll do one final move in July, to an even higher elevation forest service permit on the far side of Telluride, CO. We’re learning that the sheep actually do much better on the mountain flora. They prefer the brushy alpine plants to the grassy pastures, and it will also help to improve the quality of the meat.

Heading into the high country is always fun. Not only is it cooler and full of life, there is often an abundance of water.
In Colorado and much of the arid west, we do something called “irrigating” which is the practice of diverting water from rivers or aquifers onto crops.

Topp_ditch noteOk, so you’re not dumb, you know what irrigation is, but it is still a surprise to a lot of people that we straight-up don’t get enough precipitation to grow most crops, so we are reliant on the water that comes out of the mountains from melting snow. So bringing sheep into the high country is a chance to get into the headwaters of all our rivers and streams and ultimately the birthplace of the Colorado River!

The ranch where Stacia works diverts water out of the Uncompahgre River via a big canal. The orchard is also fed by a big canal that comes out of Paonia Reservoir, which is fed by the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Though it may sound dull, these details have soooo much to do with being a successful farmer out here. Irrigation infrastructure and delivery, the details of the watershed, and the actual year that the diversion right was first filed are some of the most important things that a person can know about their farm or ranch.

Topp_pipe in the grassAt our orchard we divert directly out of the Fire Mountain Canal, which is managed by a ditch company cooperatively owned by all the water users. When water “turns on” in the spring (which is one of my favorite days of the year) a representative from the ditch company, called the ditch rider, will leave us a little note at our point of diversion that lets us know how much water we can take out of the canal. From there, it’s up to us to get it to the trees!

When I first started, we had a beautiful (but totally inefficient) network of hand-dug ditches that delivered water across the orchard. Stones, dirt, shovels, tarps, and metal fragments were used to get the water to flow where I wanted it. It could take hours to get the right amount of water kind of close to where I needed it to go. So lots of muddy fun, but also frustrating, especially when a freeze later took out the whole crop, which meant I wasn’t compensated for the hours spent playing caveman hydro-engineer.

Now we use gated-pipe (a 6-inch pipe with intermittent cut-outs that can be calibrated with little sliding doors called gates). This system is still relatively inefficient, though it works really well for us.

Frank, my mentor and partner, uses micro-sprinklers at each tree. This is definitely the trend among orchardists, but expense and a slew of other issues keeps our farm from upgrading. Besides, I’d hate to lose the feeling I get every spring when I first see water rushing out of the pipes and down between blossoming processions of trees.

Meet Harrison: “There was nothing to do but irrigate and start dating.”

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Welcome to the arid West! For the next six months, four young farmers/ranchers from Colorado and New Mexico will be blogging about their experiences with water access and explaining everything from what it feels like to clean a 400-year-old acequia to how they’ve learned to make the most of the water they have through conservation and crop selection. To help you understand the terminology around water access, we’ve put together a short glossary at the bottom of this blog post.

 

By Harrison Topp, Topp Fruit

Three years ago I made my first fruit sale from my family’s orchard in Colorado. It was my first year managing a fruit crop after years of farming vegetables for a CSA in North Carolina. That first year, friends, family, and community members assembled from across the state to pick and store ton after ton of plums and cherries. The crop was bound for a fermentation start-up business in Boulder, CO called Ozuke.

It was an unbelievable success for me as a first-year orchardist. And to make things even sweeter, our fermented plums went on to win an Alice Waters Good Food Award.

The next year I ambitiously leaned into preparations for the season, having learned more than a few lessons about perennial fruit farming, labor, water, and wholesale marketing. I was busy finalizing my organic certification, honing my irrigation system, planting understory crops, lining up reliable workers, and expanding my markets. But, on April 13th, with the trees in full bloom, I lost my entire crop to a spring freeze. I was constantly reminded of the loss every time I switched the gates of our irrigation pipe or walked from tree to tree looking for pests.

Topp_blossoms_v-croppedThere was nothing left to do but irrigate and start dating. I found myself taking every chance I could to leave our little town of 1,300 people and travel across the mountains to Denver, Fort Collins, or Boulder, a four-hour journey. The urban landscape was a good distraction. And better yet, I could use Tinder and Okay Cupid. I coined the term “farmer-sexual” and was beginning to suspect that I was the only one who fit that orientation.

But boy-howdy, thank you Tinder, because after about six months of swiping right, I met the rancher of my dreams, Stacia Cannon. Now we’re back on the western slope together. This season we’ve managed to entwine ourselves in some new and very unique situations. (more…)