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The Forgotten Fruit: A Solution to Agricultural Food Waste

Milo Gladstein | United States

Owner of Scrumpy's Hard Cider Bar & Pub and Summit Cider, Jennifer Seiwald moves peaches into the conveyor belt of Helga, The Summit Cider Mobile Juicing Trailer, in Palisade, Colorado on Sept. 3, 2022 “We usually do between 500,000 and 800,000 pounds of food or fruit processing with her. And I know this year, we're well over 500,000 pounds and probably closer to 700,000 pounds of fruit that we've processed with Helga,” Seiwald said.

There is an issue in our world of agricultural food waste. There are many causes including: quality based contracts, weather, food prices and more. The USDA estimates $161.5 billion of food grown is wasted each year. Palisade, Colorado is one of the highest food producing cities in the state, being known specifically for their peaches.

Big grocery companies buy only the best fruits from these local farmers and truck the rest in from out of state because it's cheaper and more perfect looking for market. Fort Collins, CO local cider brewer Jennifer Seiwald is changing the narrative around food waste. After receiving the USDA food production grant, Seiwlad bought a state of the art mobile juicing trailer named Helga. She takes Helga all around the state juicing what are known as seconds, fruit too big or too small to make it to market that would otherwise be thrown away if not for her. The juice is then brought back to Fort Collins and brewed into hard cider which gets distributed all over the state.

The Forgotten Fruit

The sun rises over Talbot’s Farm in PALISADE, Colo. as Jennifer Seiwald fires up her mobile fruit-juicing truck she’s nicknamed Helga.

“Going up!” Seiwald calls as she loads up a 1,000-pound tote of peaches to be juiced and Helga roars into action. The mobile juicing trailer makes short work of the huge load of peaches, and the owner of Summit Cider and Scrumpy’s Hard Cider Bar takes some satisfaction in knowing that her work not only makes delicious hard cider, but also provides real support for local and sustainable food production.

“I'm a firm believer in supporting local agriculture, and if we don't do it, it will go away,” Seiwald said. “Colorado is a really harsh mistress, but we grow some of the best fruit here. I really want to see that art survive.”

Industrial food production is hard on farmers. The demands for huge quantities and uniform production make it difficult for large-scale growers to make a profit, and nearly impossible for small farms to survive. With the help of Helga, Seiwald specializes in juicing what are known as “seconds.” These are perfectly tasty and usable fruits that would never make it to market for a variety of reasons, one being quality-based contracts. Small blemishes, fruit too big or too small, etc. are violations to this contract, causing farmers to toss out fruit that doesn’t make the cut. Big Grocery wants the cheapest, most perfect-looking fruit they can find, often going so far as to import fruits from other states like California because they are 50 cents less per pound and look “better” than locally grown fruits. Doing so causes their carbon footprint to grow exponentially.

Seiwald moved to Fort Collins in 1991 with her husband Rodney, searching for a fresh start. After spending 25 years in the banking industry, it was time for a career change. Seiwald has a severe allergy to hops, so brewing beer was out of the question. Through research and observation, Seiwald came to the realization that nobody was brewing hard cider in Fort Collins.

“That was the defining, pivotal moment where I decided to figure out what it took to make cider,” Seiwald said. “Then I got myself into some classes with the Washington State Extension office and with the UK's Cider Academy.” She took that training and launched her company, Summit Cider.

Fruit grown in Colorado generally has a higher sugar content and thicker skins than fruit from other states like California, which create more tannins, making for a richer tasting cider. That local taste is not only the key to sustainability, but has set Summit apart. “We use only Colorado peaches, primarily, PALISADE peaches in our peach cider and they're delicious,” Seiwald said. “They're the best and that's all there is to it.” She estimates that she also helps small farmers and orchard owners put over $2 million per year into the local economy.

Another instance is Seiwald’s relationship with PALISADE Orchard owners Annette and Bob Dunckley. “Last year by this time, we had a lot more fruit dropping on the ground,” Dunckely said. “We were in a hurry trying to figure out what to do.” The Dunckley’s had 18,000 pounds juiced by Summit Cider this year, so all that fruit that would have gone to waste is distributed all over the state of Colorado, as well as into Kansas and Wyoming.

Seiwald maintains a close relationship with Colorado State University, both through the Agriculture Department and the Fermentation Science Program. Seiwald allows CSU fermentation science students to brew beer in Scrumpy’s Hard Cider Bar with peach juice from PALISADE. The beer is called Belgian Peche, which is a Peach Saison made with local malt. Students learn how to use the unique qualities of local fruit to create a flavor that can’t be replicated elsewhere.

Seiwald met Dr. Dawn Thilmany, CSUagriculture professor, while on a local food panel at CSU. Seiwald’s goal was to get more people involved in where their food comes from, and Thilmany told her about the The Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) USDA grant. “USDA continues to put new resources on the ground to catalyze innovations in farms and food supply chains,” Dr. Thilmany said. “As soon as I met Jennifer Siewald … we quickly brainstormed how a mobile juicing unit she had heard of might serve the Western Slope well.” It took months of work, but the USDA grant helped her buy the trailer.

“Fast forward five years, and she is helping to create a market for "seconds" among fruit growers that has not existed in years,” Dr. Thilmany said. “We are lucky to have community leaders like her to lean into when opportunities for food system investments arise.”

The USDA estimates $161.6 billion of food gets wasted each year, correcting that motivates food workers like Kevin Harvey, who manages the mobile juicing truck. “Forty-plus percent of this industry is just thrown away,” Harvey said. “That 1,500 gallons of juice in the back of that truck would have just been thrown into a landfill. I wish that more people, especially farmers themselves, knew about this.”

“We usually do between 500,000 and 800,000 pounds of fruit processing (per year) with her (Helga),” Seiwald said. This is all fruit that was grown with hard work and a lot of money that would have been wasted if not juiced. There is a small amount of waste produced by the trailer, this is used as compost and put back into the soil. The excess trash from the juicing process gets spread into the fields in PALISADE because the soil is very alkaline and fruit is acidic, so spreading it into the fields brings the soil ph down, which causes the fruit to have higher sugar levels and taste better.

The juice is then brought back to Scrumpy’s Hard Cider Bar in Old Town, Fort Collins and fermented in large tanks into hard and non-alcoholic cider, which is then canned and sold right in the shop and distributed all over the state of Colorado. Seiwald and head cider maker Erik Woodwick create new and exciting cider flavors. Seiwald plans to continue to expand Scrumpy’s and Summit Cider distribution as well as continue to support local farmers and businesses.

 

The Perfect Pear

Annette and Bob Dunckley spent the majority of their lives living on a ranch in DIXON, Wyoming. Two years ago they transitioned to an orchard in PALISADE, Colo. focusing on growing pears. A steady breeze flows down the mesa walls surrounding the orchard, insuring the orchard stays cool in the summer and is protected by frost in the winter. The Dunckleys core philosophy is farm to table, reconnecting people to the source of their food, and they hope to impart that knowledge to their granddaughters.

“We're truly blessed to be able to get to do this. And we hope to pass it along,” Dunckley said.

“Sometimes you got to get out and get your hands dirty, to shake everything else off in the world. You can get out here and kind of get back to nature and things get in perspective,” Dunckley said.

For Annette Dunckley, the orchards have always called to her more than the ranch. Just this past spring, honey bees were added to the orchard. Bees were not really an option in Wyoming, but now down in PALISADE, they have become a reality; with plans to get two or three more hives in the coming years. Since the addition of bees, the Dunckleys have noticed a considerable increase in fruit yield this past growing season. While they are not necessary for peaches, they have increased pear yield considerably. Knowledge of how the ecosystem functions is imperative in creating a harmonious orchard. The ecosystem created on an orchard works as a sort of family in itself, which can be passed down to grandchildren and orchard owners alike.

Though the orchard has been a dream come true, it has not come without challenges. One of the main problems has been Fire Blight, a disease that attacks fruit trees and can single-handedly destroy an orchard. This manifests as cankers or wet decaying splotches on a fruit tree. Managing it can prove very difficult. The wood has to be burned on site so the blight doesn’t spread.

“Ag people tend to be a little more shoulder to shoulder kind of folks and work together,” Dunckley said. “You have a common goal. Everybody wants to have a great product at the end of the year. Everybody hurts when everybody gets froze out. Or everybody hurts when some kind of insect comes in or ruins an entire harvest.”

The Dunckleys plan to remove a large portion of the pear orchard and replace it with 1,400 peach trees so it will be a multi-fruit orchard. It is said that orchards are meant to be planted for the next generation, Annette and Bob are absolutely upholding this tradition in spectacular fashion.

“Maybe I'm unreal about it. But to me, I love it because they are my decorated trees all summer. And then the fall is like Oh darn. This part's over but we're on to the next and then leaves are beautiful because they're that reddish orange color and so it's fabulous all year round,” Dunckley said.

 

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