On Oct. 22, Conner Orchards in Hotchkiss processed six and half bins of apples into 370 bag-in-a-box five liter containers. Usually, not much can be done with these number two apples, leftovers or ugly fruit.
Last year, this same fruit was wasted, given to animals at best.
This year, however, thanks to a state-of-the-art mobile juicing platform, Summit Mobile Juicing, Conner Orchards has turned that fruit into 100 percent apple cider -- a value-added product to sell at markets and festivals over the next year.
"This experience was a first for us," said Laurie Conner, co-owner of the Rogers Mesa orchard. "It's definitely worth the cost."
For most fruit growers, investing the time and money into an on-site juicer and pasteurizer isn't feasible. With SMJ, however, the process is simple. Growers supply fruit, a level place for processing, adequate drainage and water for washing.
SMJ takes care of everything else, from processing to pasteurizing, and even packaging. Fruit growers put their own label on a box, allowing them to benefit from the savings of not printing their own, yet still advertising their businesses.
Orchards are charged $6 a box. Depending on the blend, a five liter box of sweet apple cider sells for $12-$18. "When people realize how much they're supporting the local orchard owner with this juice, they're happy to buy it," said Jennifer Seiwald, owner of SMJ.
From Fruit to Juice
The entire process doesn't take long, about 45 minutes per 300 liters if pasteurized, less if unpasteurized.
The fruit is first dumped into a holding bin and then released into a tub of water. Then, a conveyor picks up the fruit and takes it into the grinder.
The pulp comes down a shoot and into buckets. Pulp is often given to pig farmers or composted. Conner sent the scraps home with We Got A Farm owner Jamie Head.
Meanwhile, the juice flows into 300 liter holding tanks. When full, technician Kris Reidhead will operate the packaging machine. For pasteurizing, the juice is heated to 181 degrees Fahrenheit.
Finally, it's pumped into five liter bags, sealed and then boxed.
Approximately 16 pounds of fruit is needed to make one box. The juice is shelf-stable for a year, and lasts in the fridge for two months once opened.
"My favorite is when kids get to come, see the process, and ask questions," said Lucas Thompson, technician, referring to the homeschool group invited to watch the juicing at Conner Orchards.
Two years ago, Conner heard about the idea for SMJ at the Western Colorado Fruit Growers Conference. After learning the business was in operation this year, she decided to give it a try when the juicer visited Wag's World Orchards in Eckert.
She processed a bin and a half of apples, took the juice to Applefest and sold out.
"The Conners are the perfect example," said Seiwald. "People are hesitant initially, but once they try it they invite us back for more."
This time Conner is using a blend of six apple varieties to create a balanced sweet/sour apple cider. Additionally, she plans on infusing some with lavender.
"With 600 lavender plants, I thought 'Why not?' and added it a batch last time," she said. "My book club loved it, so I plan to take it to some festivals next year."
Conner Orchards is just one example of the many fruit growers in Delta County being empowered by this new company.
Jan Waggoner, with Wag's World Orchards in Eckert, sees the juice as a way to help their farm through the drought year. "It's been a hard year for everyone, so this was a good product for us to invest in to sell during the winter," she said.
Seiwald pointed out that "right around the time the fruit is ripe and ready, tourists disappear." With the juice, growers can have another revenue source year round.
Waggoner said the 100 percent juice products have been well received by everyone, especially breweries and other commercial operations. SMJ processed honeycrisp apple cider, peach and pear juice for her orchard.
"People are doing all kinds of stuff with it, from cooking with it to creating fancy cocktails," she said. For example, many homebrewers are using the peach juice to make peach beer.
A Juicer on Wheels
Summit Mobile Juicing is based out of Fort Collins. There, Seiwald runs several other businesses: an alcoholic beverage company, Summit Hard Cider and Perry Company, LLC; a restaurant named Scrumpy's Hard Cider Bar and Pub; and Branch Out Cider, a local fruit harvesting and processing program.
After earning a grant through the Local Food Promotion Program, the mobile juicing concept was born. The process took several years, including having to purchase the trailer from Austria through a vendor in Canada and then bringing it to Colorado.
"Our focus is getting people to appreciate what we grow locally by taking an underutilized product and helping farmers bring it to market for their benefit," said Seiwald. "Leftover fruit that didn't have a home now has a perfect use."
This is the company's first year in operation, only having been approved for a food manufacturing license in July. The next day they loaded up and headed to Palisade for peach season.
Talbott's Mountain Gold allowed them to run through the bumps of first learning how to process juice. And, they experimented with the idea of a new product: peach juice. This year they processed 350,000 pounds of peaches from various orchards.
Apple predictions are around 400,000 pounds. "We spent a lot of time in the North Fork this apple season," said Thompson.
Pears, plums and grapes were also juiced this year throughout western Colorado. Waggoner said she already plans on having SMJ make cherry juice next year.
"We're hoping to be happily overwhelmed next season," said Seiwald.
Another initiative on the agenda is a crowdfunding campaign called "Cider for the Holidays." Community members will help juice be processed and donated to churches, homeless shelters and food banks for holiday baskets to have a box of sweet apple cider.
With colder temperatures arriving, SMJ wrapped up its time in the North Fork with Conner Orchards before heading to Cañon City. To end the season they'll go to Cortez to help with the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project (MORP), where millions of apples might go to waste if not used in juicing.
More info on MORP is available at montezumaorchard.org.
Next year Seiwald predicts still working just in Colorado, but she hopes to eventually see the mobile juicing concept expand into New Mexico or other nearby states.
"I think this concept is only going to continue to grow, especially because people want a 100 percent juice product with nothing added. It has a special taste," said Waggoner.