The 2012 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for the Western Colorado Horticulture Society is Shirlene Cunningham. A product of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, her wonderful work ethic, grit, and determination are a byproduct of that time and place.
Her father would go to the field with a jug of water and weed all day, and she often does the same thing. She loves to care for the orchard and her garden (including over 1,000 tomato plants this past year) and considers weeding "meditation."
When she was 12, her dad gave her and her brother two acres of dryland cotton to farm. His goal was to teach his kids to love the land, to appreciate planting, to work, and then to appreciate the harvest. The two were responsible for caring for and then picking the cotton, wearing a large bag called a "long-back" which they dragged behind them in the field. The work was very hot and backbreaking since it took place in late summer, but they were laboring towards a big payday since their dad let them keep the money from the cotton gin.
After living her early years in Oklahoma, she married Bob Cunningham and moved to Colorado in 1964. Bob and his brother had just planted an orchard in Delta, growing mostly apples and pie cherries. Bob had no idea of the tremendous asset he had obtained when he put a ring on Shirlene's finger. Since Garnet Mesa is a fairly cold location for fruit, Bob and Melvin always worked off the farm leaving their wives to run the thinning crews. Harvest crews numbered up to 50 men and 50 housewives for cherry harvest. One year, she felt like the help was hitting the cerveza a little hard at the end of the day so she confiscated it, holding it until harvest was over. The men respected Shirlene. Just this past year, one of the men that worked for her 37 years ago, sent her a nice bouquet of flowers.
At the same time, nothing went lacking at home. Her yard and garden have always been immaculate and her family got three good meals a day. She was usually the first one up and the last one to bed. During retirement, Bob planted about 15 acres of peaches at a better location. He had 32 varieties and took notes on each variety's compatibility with our climate. The orchard is planted on a small mesa that overlooks Delta County and has a wonderful view of Grand Mesa. One of Shirley's U-pick customers referred to it as a "little like being in heaven."
Since Bob passed away in 2008, Shirlene has stepped up to take over his responsibility. She never seems intimidated in figuring out what spray is needed. She has learned how to run the sprinkler system and her kids believe that the orchard looks better than ever. In addition to making decisions on how to care for the orchard, she personally works on every aspect of caring for the trees.
Many of her peaches are sold at Red Shed in Delta, and very rarely is there a complaint. She works tirelessly in harvest making sure every box is perfect. When a customer gets a box of Cunningham Orchard peaches, they can be sure that there won't be a bad one in the box. According to one wholesale customer, "Shirlene is good at knowing when to pick the peaches, and so good at sorting them. Her peaches are perfectly picked and ripened. Our customers are so happy when we are able to sell peaches from her orchard."blog comments powered by Disqus