Montezuma County apples were once again pressed into juice for market during a successful pilot project held in a Lebanon orchard last month.
The event, sponsored by the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, processed 800 bushels of apples gathered from local orchards.
“It went really well. We generated 2,200 gallons of raw juice that was sold to hard cider makers,” said MORP manager Nina Williams.
The group is studying the feasibility of using a mobile pressing unit to process apples from the many forgotten local orchards that otherwise let the fruit go to waste.
They were awarded a $42,400 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test the idea.
For two days in October, Northwest Mobile Juicing, based in Montana, set up in the Russell apple orchard in Lebanon. The unit can press, pasteurize and package the juice for market.
For the pilot, the raw juice could only be sold to hard cider companies for fermentation. Additional permits are needed to sell pasteurized apple juice.
“We proved we can get if off the trees for sale to the hard cider market,” Williams said. “If the demand is there, we can work through the regulations to sell local juice as well.”
Several orchard owners realized some profits from the project, and were paid 10 cents per pound for apples still on the tree.
A dedicated crew of 20 MORP volunteers spent 300 hours picking the apples in the weeks before the pressing. In all, nine apple orchard owners were paid $3,500 for their apples.
One local cider maker and four from Boulder and Denver bought the raw juice. A semi-truck was loaded with the juice for a night run to Front Range cideries.
“They were impressed with the quality,” Williams said. “The juice was a blend of local heritage apple varieties.”
Apple mash produced was hauled off by local livestock owners for feed.
MORP said it broke even on the trial run and is studying how best to set up a local pressing facility.
“We learned that there is a lot of labor and infrastructure involved besides just the pressing equipment,” Williams said.
Commercial apple operations require warehouses, shipping docks, refrigerated cold storage to store apples, and heavy equipment such as trucks and forklifts.
MORP has been documenting once-popular heritage apple varieties from the days when the area was a thriving fruit market more than 100 years ago.
They have brought many of them back to life through careful grafting and propagation techniques, and are encouraging local farmers to plant heritage apple orchards.
“Our big goals are to bring back this genetic diversity to keep heritage apples from going extinct, and to get it so people can have these trees again,” said MORP orchardist Jude Schuenemeyer. “Trees that worked here for over 100 years are really well-adapted to this place.”
A recent victory for MORP was the rediscovery of the rare Colorado orange apple in a Cañon City orchard in 2012. For the last several years, local orchardists have been grafting and cultivating this near-extinct apple known for its fine flavor, hardiness, storage qualities and cider-making potential.
There are dozens of abandoned apple orchards in the county that still produce a good crop but have a limited market. The juice market is seen as ideal because the apples do not have to be perfect and the ones that fall on the ground can be used as well.
“One of our goals is to get local orchards back in shape by hosting workshops this winter on pruning and orchard management,” Williams said.
For more information, visit www.montezumaorchard.org.