INSIDE THE SERIES The Gazette is exploring four of Colorado’s iconic crops and the communities that support them. Today — Palisade peaches Aug. 19 — Olathe sweet corn Aug. 26 — Rocky Ford melons Sept. 2 — Pueblo chiles

PALISADE Dennis Clark looks above and frowns.

“We need the rain,” he says, “but we don’t need it now.”

So it goes for the patriarch of the longest-continuing peach farming family in Colorado’s legendary fruit valley. Mother Nature giveth — the warm days and cool nights, that breeze through the walls of DeBeque Canyon that James A. Clark and fellow settlers 120 years ago came to know as the “million dollar breeze,” stirring the soils just right, a blessing on the land destined to grow the sweetest peaches. And Mother Nature taketh.

She has for six generations proved to be but one unpredictable force for the Clarks. Market demand has been another, immigrant labor yet another. For a perfectionist like Dennis Clark, it all adds up to immovable weight.

“You’d think each year would get easier, but it never does,” says Staci Clark, his wife of 32 years. “There’s a higher stress level because you don’t exactly get your paycheck from someone else. You are your paycheck. If you lose your crops, you’re not gonna have a paycheck for two years maybe.”

It’s harvest time, Palisade’s 50th annual Peach Festival approaching. The sun rises over the mesas, painting the sky purple and casting light on the rows of trees, making their fuzzy orbs glow. “It’s a beautiful time of year,” Staci says, “but also a stressful time of year.”

Clark Family Orchards has 1 million pounds of peaches to deliver, Kroger Co., the nation’s largest supermarket chain, being the biggest customer. No day can be wasted in the four-month harvest.

Peaches identified by Dennis Clark the afternoon before must be picked and packaged now, at this moment he’s identified as ideal for the fruit to be placed in a 34-degree cooler, shipped and be nearly ripe by the time they arrive at stores. And this morning’s rain might very well foil the plan.

It might ruin the quality, though in the orchard across the street boxes are being loaded and covered by a tarp. The rain might slow the pickers. Dennis Clark thinks about this as he checks his watch constantly, taking one call after another.

His daughter, Mackenzie Schmalz, comes by as business picks up at the stand by the packing shed. “Do you know about an order for 13 boxes?” she asks. The customer is here.

“Ooh, I don’t,” Dennis says, not letting himself feel any shame. “We can have them here in a few minutes.” And he hurries to the shed, a jog that becomes a sprint.

Afterward, he hops on a four-wheeler and vrooms down the street, to the trees surrounding his home, where his son-in-law leads the crew. Chris Schmalz is in his first season learning the ropes, waking for coffee before 5 a.m., heading to the daily meeting with Dennis at 6 a.m. — “meaning 5:30,” Chris says — and getting done about 7 p.m. after racking his brain over the books.

Before this year, he and Mackenzie were in Denver working corporate jobs. But the family business appealed to him for how he could work outside, and, he says, “I saw how much Mackenzie loved everything.”

That brings a smile to Dennis’ face. “He’s another one not very smart,” he says.

A dream in a desert

Dennis Clark was born in 1962, a year that sent a hard spring frost to kill trees across the valley.

Other deadly freezes hit over the years, some consecutive, burying the family in debt. Infections during the ’40s and ’50s almost put Grandpa James out of business. The Clarks fell into a deep hole again after 1977, when in the middle of the night Larry Clark woke up to find the packing shed on fire.

His youngest son was in college working toward an accounting degree. “Things were struggling here,” Dennis says. “So I stepped up and never did finish.”

While his two older brothers went on to life off the farm, Dennis never could pull himself away. For three decades, he’s carried on the dream of his great great-grandpa, who in 1897 came by train from Iowa to plant one of Palisade’s first peach trees, to help turn the desert green and capture the nation’s craving.

Dennis keeps a letter from Gov. John D. Vanderhoof, sent to the family in the ’70s, expressing thanks for the peaches. “You shouldn’t have trouble getting rid of them,” it reads, which makes Dennis chuckle some summers, such as that one in 2016, when hail wiped out 40 of his 120 acres. Some summers he thinks to himself, if only, if only.

But his daughters never felt much struggle growing up. Sure, summer came, and Mackenzie and Courtney weren’t going on vacations like their school friends, busy as they were selling at the family stand and placing stickers on peaches and whatnot. But they enjoyed the simple pleasures their father enjoyed as a kid. “It was almost like a Huckleberry Finn life,” he says.

He and Staci never wanted the kids to feel as if their futures were made up for them. “He grew up and did this and just always did it,” Mackenzie says. “I think he wanted us to be able to experience something else.”

They were required to go to college and work for someone else. So they did, and now they’re back. While Courtney helps where she can between her job as a nurse in town, Mackenzie is training herself to take control of logistics.

Should they leave the farm, “it’s not gonna hurt my feelings,” Dennis says. “We’ve made it a long time, and if I was the last, that would be the end of the book, and so be it.”

But Mackenzie has no intention of letting that happen. At the family stand, she’s looking at the black and white pictures of generations past, and she’s carrying in her arms the seventh generation, 4-month-old Cash Schmalz. Clark is his middle name.

A plaque also hangs in memory of her grandpa Larry, who died in 2013. “There are no fences in heaven,” it reads, “only fields to plow and endless trails to ride.”

“It always makes me sad when I read it,” Mackenzie says.

A spoonful of peaches

The pictures show the old days, when farmers plowed with draft horses and mules, days that Dennis Clark has far from forgotten. He still prefers the animals to tractors.

That’s partly sentimental. “Grandpa loved working with horses. Dad loved it, too,” he says.

That’s what he’d want to do more of in retirement. More hunting and fishing, too, less paperwork, more of that Huckleberry Finn life.

“It seems like as time goes on, more of the work has to be indoors,” his wife says. “He’d rather be out.”

But she can’t see him not working. He can’t see that either.

So he walks through the trees, eyeing the fruit, taking note of the redness and firmness and making calls. “A few days out probably,” he says here. “Maybe two weeks yet,” he says elsewhere.

He’s asked the question he gets all the time: Does he still enjoy the peaches? And the answer is yes, absolutely.

He doesn’t get much of a breakfast during harvest, nor does he have much time for lunch. But every morning, he has to have a spoonful of peaches, to taste that sweetness before he goes.

Tags

Seth is a features writer at The Gazette, covering the outdoors and the people and places that make Colorado colorful.

Load comments