Four Colorado communities — Pueblo, Rocky Ford, Palisade and Olathe — are synonymous with their beloved crops.
Coloradans flock to grocery stores and farmers markets each summer for Palisade peaches, Olathe sweet corn, Rocky Ford melons and Pueblo chiles, which bring in tens of millions of dollars to state farms and orchards annually.
They’re advertised with “Colorado Proud” tags and inspire festivals across the state.
Beginning this month, drivers can even adorn their vehicles with Pueblo chile license plates.
They’re the fruits and vegetables of intergenerational legend, but they aren’t the state’s most lucrative agricultural products, data show.
Coloradans perceive the top products grown or raised in the state to be sweet corn, peaches, melons, other vegetables and cattle, in that order, says a study by the state Department of Agriculture. In reality, cattle, dairy, field corn, hay and wheat bring in the most money.
Still, many say they’re proud of — and loyal to — the state’s peaches, sweet corn, melons and chiles.
“It might be because it’s such a short season for those items, so they have to get them while they can,” said Wendy White, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. It also could be the products’ long history in Colorado, or that they’re promoted well, White said.
“And of course, a lot of the top five are things consumers don’t really have a connection to necessarily,” such as hay or field corn to feed livestock.
Fans across the country watch for the famous fruits and vegetables, too.
“Hey, we just got melons in Brooklyn, N.Y.,” said a late July message left on the Rocky Ford Growers Association website, spokeswoman Sarah Beatty reports. The Rocky Ford Growers Association’s eight growers in Crowley and Otero counties produce about 4 million melons each year, depending on the weather, she said.
Beatty said her father, who grew up in southern Illinois, and her father-in-law, who grew up in St. Louis, were raised on Rocky Ford melons. The trains would cut through Rocky Ford, hit St. Louis and end up in Chicago, carrying melons across the country.
“They remember that people looked forward to those Rocky Ford melons all summer long, because there is just nothing better,” Beatty said.
“There are wonderful melons grown in Mexico and wonderful melons grown in California. But I think it’s a combination of the taste and the texture when you bite into a Rocky Ford melon. My husband described it best: It’s like velvety.”
Mountain Fresh Sweet Corn is sold as far as Texas and Pennsylvania, said Zack Ahlberg, co-owner with his father and brother. The Olathe crop’s appeal is born of the region’s unique characteristics, he said.
“They seek the sweet corn out because of our climate. In this particular area, we have a lot warmer days and cooler nights, which bring the sugar content up in the sweet corn,” Ahlberg said. “And the specific varieties that we raise, they breed them to have a real tender kernel ... so that when you bite it, it just explodes in your mouth without getting stuck in your teeth too bad.”
About 20 local growers have delivered an estimated 1.3 million boxes of Olathe sweet corn this season, reports the Colorado Sweet Corn Administrative Committee. That doesn’t include sweet corn sold at farmers markets and roadside stands.
Palisade has a “million-dollar breeze,” which warms the air on spring mornings so the fruit doesn’t freeze, said Priscilla Walker, founding chairwoman of the town’s historical society. “When you get to Mount Garfield, the valley widens out, and the warming effect stops.”
A state Department of Agriculture brochure boasts: “Like the majestic mountains that define us, Colorado has several unique features that set us apart from other states, allowing us to grow the very best produce in the United States.” Those features are nearby headwaters, high altitude, sunshine, temperature, a central location and food safety, it says.
Of the four iconic plants of Colorado summers, peaches pack the greatest economic punch.
Colorado is the nation’s sixth-largest peach grower, producing nearly 28 million pounds of the juicy fruit each year, White said.
Statewide, farmers made more than $27 million on peaches in 2016, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent statistics bulletin. In 2015, cantaloupe brought in $3.8 million, and sweet corn brought in $9.3 million.
Chiles’ cash receipts — the amount sold in a calendar year — aren’t tallied annually, White said.
Sweet corn is grown on more acres across the state than peaches, cantaloupe or chiles, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s five-year census. Results from the 2017 census weren’t available yet. But the 2012 data show:
• 188 farms harvested sweet corn from 4,885 acres.
• 40 farms harvested cantaloupes and muskmelons from 438 acres.
• 68 farms harvested non-bell peppers, including chiles, from 333 acres.
• 355 farms harvested peaches from 2,776 acres.
Those aren’t necessarily all Palisade peaches, Rocky Ford melons, Olathe sweet corn or Pueblo chiles.
Without the crops, communities such as Olathe “would turn into ghost towns,” Ahlberg said. “Agriculture is the main source that supports all the other community projects.”
Many Colorado towns have ebbed and flowed as they’ve adapted to new industries, Walker said.
“I think that’s one of Palisade’s strengths,” she said. “We’ve just been growing the best peaches in the world for the last 125 years, so we don’t have to develop a new identity or get people excited about something.”
Many farmers’ families have grown the peaches, sweet corn, melons and chiles for generations.
“Georgia, which is maybe the third-largest peach-growing state, they have maybe five different growers. I mean, they’re huge businesses,” Walker said. “In Palisade, there’s probably 100 peach growers. … It’s something that people just enjoy doing.”
Ahlberg said his 5-year-old son wants to help in the cornfields.
“In our family, let’s see. He’ll be the fifth (generation) in this (Uncompahgre) valley, I guess. We try to keep it going.”