In 1906, Frank Burns made a trip from Winterset, Iowa, to the Grand Junction, Colorado area to investigate the possibility of moving his family and farm. By 1907, they had sold their Iowa land, loaded all their belongings and animals in a railroad car and made the move to Grand Junction. They planted peaches on two pieces of land. My grandmother remembered that not a sprig of grass was on the land when her parents planted trees. Conscientious about the soil, my great grandparents made wooden boxes to put in irrigation ditches directing water to their trees, and to prevent erosion.
While the trees bore well, spring seasons of cold temperatures and frost were a concern. One particularly bad year saw fruit crops in the whole valley wiped out–including my great grandparents. To make ends meet, Frank worked hauling gravel and lumber with his horse and team.
During good fruit years, not a piece of fruit went to waste. Fruit left unsold was dried on the roof of the house for winter use. Each year, my great grandfather’s mother would come from Iowa, staying two to three months to help with harvest and to dry fruit. After harvest, she would return to Iowa by train accompanied by a large trunk of dried fruit.
A Burns daughter, Lois, grew up in the fruit business and married Nelson Newton Phillips. While my great grandfather was the one who first planted fruit trees, it was Lois and Nelson Phillips who ushered in fruit growing as our family knows it today.
Lois Burns, daughter of Frank and Maggie Burns, married Nelson Newton Phillips in 1918. By this time, fruit growing was well established in the Grand Junction area; Nelson and Lois bought a fruit orchard in 1920. Nelson was known for his hard work and innovation. Some of the equipment he manufactured is still used on our farm today.
By the 1930’s Nelson and his brother-in-law Earl were making weekly trips to Denver to market their fruit. They would work with their crew picking fruit all day, load up the truck and drive to Denver during the night. They would drop off their load, turn around and get home in time to pick more fruit and make more deliveries.
The trip to Denver was not easy. There was no road between the Vail area and Frisco, nor was Loveland Pass a main road. There were two choices when driving to Denver; one was to take Tennessee Pass to Leadville and Fairplay and then drive over Kenosha Pass into Denver. The second choice was to drive to Kremling and take Berthoud Pass and Clear Creek Canyon into Denver. Either choice meant gravel roads and slow going. Nelson’s daughter Shirley (my mother), who accompanied her dad on these trips, remembers waking up to have breakfast in Fairplay. She also remembers the men throwing rocks behind the wheel of the truck on steep grades to make sure it didn’t roll back down the hill!
Nelson was known for his hard work and innovation. Some of the equipment he manufactured is still used on our farm today.
Until 1936, much of the labor of fruit growing was done with a team of horses. This included spraying with hand hoses and digging irrigation furrows. The team was trained to obey voice commands, so the person spraying could vocally tell the team to move forward, turn or stop without having to stop spraying. My mother remembers a very sad day when her dad’s team had to be sold to help pay bills.
Worms were a constant battle in the fruit. Apples were often sorted as clean, one worm and two worm apples. Nelson used to guarantee his fruit – he would jokingly tell people that if they bought a one worm apple and it didn’t have a worm to bring it back and he would exchange it for an apple with a worm. Arsenate of lead was the only spray available to help control the worms. This was applied with a hand held hose and the growers, equipment and horses would be covered with it.
While only marginally effective, it was the only choice at that time. Ironically, the spray would stick to the fruit so much that at harvest, the apples would have to be run through a sulfuric acid bath to get the arsenate of lead off before they were washed and packed.
There were difficult years and good years in the fruit business. Nelson survived near bankruptcy by working off the farm as well as selling his fruit in many venues. He mined uranium for many years to help pay off debts. Uranium from the area he mined eventually made its way into the Manhattan Project. Nelson and Lois had four children and through his hard work, Nelson was able to support his family and provide enough for Lois to live on long after his death in 1964. His love of kids and close-knit family led their two surviving children to move near them.
Shirley Phillips Ela and Dean Phillips (daughter and son of Nelson and Lois– my mother and uncle) worked away from the farm after high school, but both eventually moved back to the farm. Shirley returned to help in the packing shed in 1953 and in 1957 she and her husband Bill bought land adjacent to Nelson’s and planted pear trees on the land. Dean returned in 1958 after his military service and receiving an advanced degree from Stanford.
Shirley remembers helping with packing fruit from the time she was little. She recalls carrying drinks to the packers when she was a girl, around 1934. She then packed and helped to manage the packing shed from 1953 onward. Many people assume that Bill was the farmer. In fact it is Shirley who’s the farmer while Bill was an attorney and Colorado District Court Judge. Shirley’s help in the packing shed, in conjunction with her brother Dean, lasted until the shed ceased operations in the 1990s. Shirley then ran the family’s retail stand and farmers market operations in Grand Junction, until passing the torch to her son, Steve.
Dean bought additional land adjacent to Nelson’s in 1958 and then took over Nelson’s farm after his death. Dean was also known for innovation. From new methods of controlling pests to installation of an orchard sprinkling system, Dean was looking for new and better ways to farm. Dean bought orchard land near Hotchkiss in 1981 as development started to encroach on the land in Grand Junction. The pressure from development continued to increase to include vandalism of farm machinery, physical threats and traffic. Weary of the travails that came with development, Shirley, Bill and Dean bought additional land in Hotchkiss in 1987, selling the home farm in Grand Junction in 1995.
Of Shirley and Bill’s five children, one grew up to love fruit growing. Their youngest, Steve, returned to the farm in 1990 to take over the operations of the family farm. Steve, like his mother, grew up packing fruit at the shed in Grand Junction. From “helping” with making boxes to sorting to packing, he was involved with fruit since early childhood. The orchards provided summer work through high school and part of college.
After finishing his Bachelor of Science in Biology and Environmental Geology from Beloit College in Wisconsin, Steve worked in Nebraska for over a year with a sustainable agriculture organization
He then attended the University of Minnesota to get his Masters in Soil Science. After considering a number of occupations versus returning to the farm, Steve decided that the orchard business would provide the challenges and enjoyment that he was looking for.
Following a family history of innovation and trying to farm in the most environmental manner possible, Steve started converting the farm to certified organic production in 1994. Starting with peaches, pears, cherries, and then apples, the farm is now 100% farmed with organic methods.
Following a family history of innovation and trying to farm in the most environmental manner possible, Steve started converting the farm to certified organic production in 1994.
Steve changed watering the orchard from wasteful furrow irrigation to sprinkler and drip irrigation. Combined with investments in many acres of new trees, frost control technology, and continued development and refinement of insect control, the family farm has remained in the forefront of orcharding.
After a collapse of wholesale markets, Ela Family Farms started retailing fruit in Denver at farmers markets. Just like Steve’s pulling out of the driveway heading to markets in Denver each Friday night during harvest, Shirley and Dean recall their dad leaving to drive to Denver in much the same way.
Things often stay the same through generations. For us at Ela Family Farms that includes a commitment to bringing you the best possible tasting fruit, farming in a manner that is environmentally friendly, and supporting family farms. We take pride in our organic fruit and products and strive to ensure that our fruit will be the best you will taste, whether it be at farmers markets or in gift packs.