By John Leach
Peaches are the Grand Junction area’s leading fruit crop with about 400,000 trees in production, and Palisade is the best-known place for peaches. However, peaches and other fruits also are grown on the farms of Orchard Mesa, Fruita and Clifton.
Dozens of farms operate roadside fruit stands, and visitors will find the ripest, freshest fruit at these stands while at the same time supporting growers. For the best fruit, look for grower-run stands that have an orchard stretching behind them, not the freestanding stands run by middlemen. The peaches bought from grocery stores, even those in Colorado, cannot compare because they must be picked before they are ripe in order to survive the shipping and handling that brings them to the store.
Most fruit stands offer not just peaches but also other fruits that are in season. Cherries and apricots are available in the early summer. Peaches, apples, pears and plums hit the stands starting in mid-summer. Grapes and apples ripen in the fall.
Early-season peaches are available roughly from July 25 to Aug. 10, notably Red Haven. Late-season peaches are available from Aug. 25 to Sept. 10, notably Cresthaven and Hale. The Suncrest, Red Globe, Glohaven and Newhaven varieties fall in-between. Early varieties generally have softer flesh and are in tight supply, which means higher prices. Middle and late varieties are better for canning and freezing.
Cresthaven is the most-grown variety in Colorado, followed by Red Globe, according to Colorado State University researchers. Suncrest is third but declining, while Red Haven, Glohaven and Newhaven round out the top six. Dozens of varieties are grown in the state, and the Elberta that was popular with Colorado’s early farmers is now difficult to find.
To find the best peach, first put your nose where the stem was removed and take a whiff. A ripe peach should give off a sweet, pungent smell. Don’t squeeze the peach because that can damage it, but check look for soft, mushy spots that say it’s overripe. Don’t judge a peach by the color – appearance is set more by the variety than the maturity or ripeness.
Peaches can be stored in a refrigerator for two to three weeks. Put a couple of peaches in a brown paper bag, the kind you pack lunches in, and leave them on the kitchen counter overnight, or a full day if they’re firm, to bring them to maximum ripeness.
Many of the farmers sell peaches and other fruit at farmers’ markets in Palisade and elsewhere on the Western Slope, with a few venturing over to Denver area farmers’ markets. Some farms ship ripe peaches, though second-day air is costly. Grand Junction has farmers’ markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays, plus on Thursdays in the summer, and Palisade has a farmers’ market on Sundays.
The Palisade Peach Festival is held for four days every August, a tradition that dates back to the 1880s. The website lists peach growers in the area.