The Denver Post

Colorado peach orchard keen on high-tech packing

Labors of fruit
By Nancy Lofholm
The Denver Post

PALISADE — As south-of-the-border music sets a lively rhythm in the High Country Orchards packing shed, colorful boxes spin around a carousel and peaches roll down a conveyer belt and into — a digital photo booth. In the moment before each peach emerges from that booth, its juicy essence has been analyzed and recorded.

Its photo has been snapped seven times from different angles. Those pictures and its weight and girth show up on a control-room computer screen. Even its color and any imperfections are noted before it is gently nudged into a padded bin with peaches of the same grade.

This is the gee-whiz method of getting peaches from branch to grocery store in a ripe, sweet state. It's the only such digitized peach-packing system in Colorado and one of only a few in the country.

Shoppers who have purchased hard peaches only to be disappointed in the taste once they soften up can appreciate this high-tech approach. Peaches picked in a Palisade orchard can be in a Denver grocery-store produce aisle the same day.

Old-style mechanical methods of sorting peaches for supermarkets involved dropping the fruit through sorting holes. The fruit had to be picked harder so it wouldn't bruise so easily. And once a peach leaves the tree, the sugar photosynthesis that makes that sweet taste stops.

"This is better. It's good for the peach," says Jose Luis Gonzales, one of the workers who an hour earlier were picking these peaches and now are nestling them in boxes.

Francisco Ramirez, a migrant worker from Mexico, picks a ripe peach this month at the High Country Orchards near Palisade. (William Woody, Special to the Denver Post)

High Country Orchards added this system about five years ago after the High family moved to Palisade from Denver. They initially bought a 10-acre peach orchard with plans to remove the fruit trees and plant wine grapes. Until they tasted the peaches.

"We got that first crop of peaches, and they were just too good," explained Matthew High, 19, who helps run the orchards during his college breaks. Matthew is the whiz with the digitized packing while his brother Keenan, 11, escorts orchard visitors on tours through the farm, which has grown to 126 acres and includes vineyards and cherry trees.

Mother Theresa High prepares jams and salsas from imperfect fruits and keeps tabs on the whole operation. She is the one making the rounds of the packing shed with a clipboard as workers hustle to fill boxes before the eastbound semi-truck rolls in at 5 p.m.

Ninety percent of the Highs' peaches go to Vail, Aspen and the Front Range, where they are sold in Whole Foods and selected King Soopers stores.

Whole Foods shoppers might see Theresa High's photograph dangling over the produce aisles as a "featured farmer." "Buying local allows you to eat fruit picked fresh from our trees the very same day," reads the message under her photos. Of course, there is a higher price for these digitally handled, premium- grade peaches.

"It was a huge financial investment. It is the most expensive piece of equipment this orchard has acquired, but it's the sole reason we can produce such a premium peach," Theresa High said. The system was designed in France, built in California and shipped in pieces to Palisade, where the Highs constructed their packing shed around it.

High patriarch Scott High, who also owns and operates the Classic Wines wholesale distributorship in Denver, helped design the system to coddle a Palisade peach.

Peaches flow in one end to two workers who pluck out any obviously bad ones before they go to the digital booth and are sent to appropriate bins. Workers pack them in boxes they pull down from the overhead carousel. The full boxes are placed on another conveyor that glides around to a worker who stacks them on pallets.

When all is right, 600 peaches a minute spin through the booth. An entire pallet is loaded in less than 10 minutes.

And the Highs' website, www.highcountryorchards.com, reports which variety of peaches is headed for supermarkets.

"We built this with the future in mind," Theresa High said as she perused a computer-generated graph showing her how many peaches of what size and weight will be Denver- bound within the hour. "This is going to be my kids' future."

Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957 or nlofholm@denverpost.com