Topp_fourwheeling_crop

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.

First off, the orchard. After losing my crop last year, I’m in a darn tough situation—make or break. I need a mentor, I need some risk management, and I need some more diverse products and premium markets. I work for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union as an agricultural community organizer, which helps provide me with a stable income, but having an off-farm job also prevents me from having the agility to adjust my plans when the unforeseen happens on the farm.

This is where Frank Stonaker from Osito Orchard comes in. Frank also had a tough year last year and is asking a lot of the same questions that I am, but luckily Frank is a genuinely fantastic and experienced organic producer. What Frank needed was help getting his crop to market. My work with Farmers Union keeps me in the know about a lot of emerging markets and opportunities, like the Boulder County Farmers Market (BCFM), one of the best markets in the country, which is expanding to do a market in downtown Denver. Based on historic sales averages that BCFM tracks, their new market in Denver will be a surefire success. So we worked out a deal—Frank will lease my farm, mentor me, and assist with labor and equipment. In return, I’ll coordinate getting our product to the new, totally off-the-hook #UnionStationFarmersMarket.

Things are looking good: My irrigation water has been flowing for four weeks, the state-wide snow pack (i.e. our water supply) is above average, the cherries are about the size of marbles, and I’m cranking to figure out the logistics of getting to Denver and how we’re really going to build a niche in this new customer base on the other side of the state, where Colorado’s biggest population centers are.

Topp_Feeding_croppedAnd that’s just the orchard. My partner Stacia is an animal person. For example, one evening she brought home an orphaned lamb with a bum leg. She spent the night researching and devising a plan, then built a splint for the lamb’s leg so it would stay in place—three weeks later Gump (the bum-legged bum) is back hanging with the heard.

When she agreed to move to western Colorado with me, I was nervous I’d be another ill-fated farmer who convinced his partner to move to a rural community without social or economic opportunities. And besides, Stacia is a rancher, not a fruit farmer. So rather than settle down in Paonia, we moved onto a sheep ranch in a slightly larger town about an hour away from the orchard. She now works as a ranch hand for John and Linda Field and also holds down a job at a local veterinary clinic. The combination of the two provides for a comprehensive education in heard health and ranch-smarts.

But ho! It turns out fourth generation ranchers don’t necessarily have it any easier than beginning farmers. Even with their historic ranch, senior water rights, and grazing permits, the reality of the agricultural economy and the weakening commodity markets are enough to seriously impact John and Linda’s business. So we’ve begun machinating to create a direct-to-consumer business with the lamb. If everything goes according to plan, the situations on the ranch and the orchard should allow Stacia and I to create long term plans for how to stay in agriculture. Without a doubt it’s precarious, but hey, that’s farming.

 

Support for this series was generously provided by the Walton Family Foundation. 

Comments
5 Responses to “Meet Harrison: “There was nothing to do but irrigate and start dating.””
  1. John Shaski says:

    Best of luck, Harrison.

    Thanks for the report.

    i want to ‘know’ the people who are solving the riddles. Your story helps to define our current relationship to the land. And it refreshes our skill set, intent upon survival and beyond…to prosperity. Be creative. Be flexible. Trust your instincts.

    Let’s hope these stories and their lessons can shape our collective future, re-connecting us to the biological reality everything depends upon. A new ‘social network’. One filled with respect, awe and affection.

  2. Sondra Daly says:

    Harrison.. So good to follow your story.. FYI another friends daughter and son in law have started a local winery in Windsor. Might be a possible client.

    Forgotten Roots: An American Heritage Winery
    Forgotten Roots: An American Heritage Winery
    Wine and Spirits

    Home
    Forgotten Roots is a traditional, pre-prohibition style winery focused on making high-quality table wines using local, sustainable ingredients whenever possible. Our wines hearken back to an earlier time in American history when a little bit of ingenuity and creativity were required to make flavorful wines from whatever was available locally. Although the cottage tradition of winemaking with apples, plums, apricots and a variety of other fruits, flowers, and vegetables was once lost in the wake of commercialization and mega-wineries, Forgotten Roots works to revive this heritage. We hope you find, as we have, that fruit wine can actually be a complex and refined beverage that pairs well with a variety of meals and, most especially, with good company.

    Keep an eye out as we’re going to be available in Northern Colorado farmer’s markets, restaurants, and liquor stores soon!
    Specialties
    Wine, Mead, Cider, Fruit Wine

    Website
    http://www.forgottenrootswinery.com
    Industry
    Wine and Spirits
    Type
    Public Company
    Headquarters
    624 Main Street Windsor, Colorado 80631 United States
    Company Size
    Myself Only
    Founded
    2015

  3. Jim Quigley says:

    Great story Harrison. Good luck in your endeavors to help feed your fellow citizens and make a living too.

  4. Kelly says:

    I love your story! In 2015 I was living my dream. Homesteading and living in an original log home that had been built in 1825. I was the first person to live there in 90 years. I had to register the address with the US postal service since they had no idea it existed, on its hill in southern Indiana, overlooking the Ohio River. This all sounds romantic but I also found myself 29 and single. My days were spent working a fulltime job, an hour away from the cabin. My evenings were raising chickens, tending my young orchard of 30 trees, beekeeping, cutting & splitting firewood for my woodstove (only heat source) and generally trying to outcompete the bats in my cabin. A coworker recommeded Tinder and the rest is history. I met the guy of my dreams. He is a cattle farmer who lived only 20min away from me (VERY close for our rural area) and he had also found himself busy with all the work at home and no energy for the conventional dating run-around. He bulit his cabin-style home by hand. People laugh and shrug at Tinder but your story and ours is proof there are still good, hard working people out there. We’re sending our love from the Hoosier State!

  5. Hang in there. You two are very dedicated people and will make a go of it I’m sure. Can’t wait to meet you Harrison.

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