Old apple varieties on the verge of extinction are becoming relevant again and are gradually being identified, propagated and re-planted around the state.
That's in no small part due to the efforts of Jude and Addie Schuenemeyer, a couple from Southwest Colorado who have made it their mission to find and preserve heirloom varieties and document everything they can about the state's rich apple-growing heritage.
The Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, which they founded in 2014 after running a commercial nursery for 20 years, relies on a combination of memberships, donations, grants and partnerships to propagate old varieties and sell the seedlings, conduct research trials and compile a comprehensive history of Colorado apple production.
They've also taught classes for children and adults and are in the process of developing a curriculum that extension agents, teachers and other educators can use to spread awareness about the state's apple history.
After years spent searching historical books, reports and records, they've identified more than 400 varieties of apples that were planted in Colorado prior to 1930. They've also found many old tree specimens around the state, some of which are at least a hundred years old. But matching up the two can sometimes be a challenge.
"We've found close to 100 trees where we don't know the variety and may never know what it is," he said. "These were apples that were simply allowed to disappear. But they didn't go extinct because they were bad or because they didn't grow well here."
The reason is more complicated, reflecting sweeping societal and cultural changes.
"In America, the 1800s were the golden age of pomology," Jude Schuenemeyer said by phone from the remote McElmo Canyon west of Cortez, where they maintain a repository of rare trees. "There were as many as 17,000 different apples grown in America, including summer, fall and winter apples."
Having a diversity of varieties spread out the labor associated with pruning and harvesting and limited risk of damage from late or early frost.
After the Civil War, as people moved from the farms to the cities, this diversity began to decline, a trend that accelerated following World War II, as rapid urbanization conspired to bring the basic shiny red apple to the forefront of production.
During those years, old-style orchards from Cowley County to southern Colorado to the northern Front Range were also being pushed out by a combination of urban development, historic droughts, water rights sales and devastation caused by the crop's primary pest, the codling moth.
Colorado apple production remains in decline, but interest in traditional varieties and growing methods appears to be on the upswing.
Flavor, uniqueness and hardiness are becoming more relevant again, due to interest from cider-makers and juicers, consumers demanding more novelty and flavor, and because agricultural realities in the region are changing.
Schuenemeyer noted that his local City Market offered more than a dozen different apple varieties this fall, which struck him as a bit unusual.
"That's telling me they see a demand for it. I think there's potential all over the place," he said. "I think we'll see a resurgence of the older genetics as more people plant them out. We just want to get these trees out there to where orchard owners, consumers and buyers will see them."
Old-style orchard plantings are also getting a closer look in an era of increased water restrictions.
Meeting Colorado River compact obligations is a growing concern on the Western Slope.
"We were so wet last winter, but we've only had one little rain since May, so we're back into full-blown drought again," Schuenemeyer said of current conditions.
He and his wife are working with the Nature Conservancy to study how orchards can be designed to enhance the environment while requiring less water. The trees are planted on a widely spaced grid with native grass and pollinator plants in between them where livestock can be grazed as a secondary crop.
It's an effort to create an alternative to taxing water users on the Front Range and using that money to pay farmers to fallow land.
"If we can take under performing hay fields or pastures and convert those, using drip irrigation, to where we are using the roots of the grass as a reservoir for soil moisture, we can save water and improve habitat. If we can do enough of that, maybe we can stop worrying about paying people not to farm as they turn to a more water efficient crop," he said.
Modern dwarf orchards are often planted with the expectation they'll be pulled up every ten years, but the Schuenemeyers want to create long-lasting orchards that function as an asset for the local economy and ecosystem.
"When farmers planted the old orchards, they weren't planting them just for themselves but for future generations as well," he noted.
A new capital campaign is underway to help the couple buy a historic property and convert it from old pastureland back into orchard. They also want to build the necessary infrastructure to sort, store and press local apples, as they move toward a fee-for-service model and away from relying so heavily on grants and donations.
After exploring the feasibility of bringing out a mobile juice processing unit the past couple of years, they also want to buy their own press and pasteurizing machine.
Many of the old apple varieties are ideal for making cider or boxed juice, and demand for those products is growing.
"Our goal is to find a way for orchard owners to get paid for the fruit," Jude said. "If they don't, there's no incentive to keep the trees."