Farm Fresh Journey
Farm Fresh Journey

Apple Traditions (and Innovations)

By Lesley S. King

Pat Montoya’s Family Orchard melds the Old World and new. It dates back a century to when Pat’s ancestors settled north of Santa Fe in Velarde. The region has a long history of growing fruit that started some 400 years ago when Franciscan monks planted grape and apple seeds they brought from Spain. Today, the Montoyas capitalize on the lush abundance here to grow apples and other fruit, while they keep pace with modern times.

Their 1,000 trees stand in straight rows on 12 acres, nearly a dozen varieties of apples including traditional ones planted by Pat’s father: Red and Golden delicious, Jonathan and Rome beauty. Along with those, in order to keep up with new trends in growing, Pat has planted Fuji, Gala, Granny Smith, and Winesap, varieties that often have more visual appeal, but not more flavor than the traditional, Pat says. He has also planted peach, pear, and cherry trees. All of the Montoya fruit is naturally grown, using only organic pesticides.


A focused apple grower with a generous spirit, Pat also works at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a machinist. In order to have a full-time job and produce apples, he relies on the help of his family. Each week, they grace the Santa Fe Farmers Market offering samples of their apples, fresh and dried, and their renowned cider. As well, they sell jam canned by Pat’s mother, Mary, and daughter, Victoria, while his wife Juanita and son Michael, and grandchildren help tend and cultivate the fruit and press cider.

Another big helper in the process is the Rio Grande, which flows down a gorge above their property before some of it channels into the ancient Acequia de la Canova. The Montoyas open their headgate to let water flow into underground plastic pipe that directs it to various places in the orchard. Rather than rely on ditches, Pat has utilized this pipe technology to flood the orchard with glassy pools that mirror the blue sky. “It was difficult to keep the ditches clean,” he says. “Now it takes less time and energy to irrigate.” 

The varying seasons in Velarde keep the Montoya’s busy. In winter they supervise cleaning the main acequia and pruning their trees. In spring they watch for signs of frost. Pat’s best tool for tracking temperature changes these days is the Internet. He uses local forecasts and the Weather Channel’s site to help predict when a freeze will come. Though technology such as fans and sprinkler systems used to protect blossoms exists, it is expensive, so Pat floods the orchard floor instead. “Water is generally warmer than the air temperature, and the moisture helps prevent freezing,” he says. “Still, I’m pretty much at the mercy of the weather.”

Fortunately, with their cider-making capabilities, the Montoyas can still have an abundant market season even in a low production year. In most cases they use a good portion of their crop to make cider, but in a tough year they buy apples from other growers to press. In winter they serve it hot, in summer cold—along with cider snow cones. They also maintain a good supply of jams and dried apples, which allow them to keep a constant presence at the market. Pat feels this is important. “The customers know me. I’m building up a clientele that comes to me,” he says. “And I enjoy being there. It’s the funnest part of all the work we do.”

Back in the orchard, as the fruit forms, the Montoyas monitor bug counts. This involves tracking how many moths they trap per day. Pat looks for a peak, which means there has been a mating flight. Seven days after such a flight, he sprays organic pesticides. Then as the fruit matures, the family watches with trepidation the thickest, darkest thunderheads for signs of hail, which can bruise and pit the fruit. “It can hit at any time in the summer,” he says. “But we’ve been lucky overall.”

After the crop has made it through these threats, it’s time for the harvest. “The longer I can keep the fruit on the trees, the sweeter it gets,” Pat says. And that is how his product differs so profoundly from supermarket fruit, which is usually picked early when it’s still hard so it can ship more easily. Once the Montoyas do pick, they move fast and nonstop. The family washes, dries and buffs the apples, then sorts them, reserving the less perfect ones to dry and make cider.

“Much of our cider is made less than twenty-four hours from when you’ll buy it at the market,” Pat says. It’s no wonder that the juice has such a following, with as much as 100 gallons selling each week during peak season. “I give samples out so customers can see what it tastes like that day,” Pat says. “We’ve done this all our lives. It’s always been a game to find out what we can do with the apples. Every year it’s different.”

As he stands at the market, greeting patrons with a free sample of cider, he smiles nostalgically. “This must be in my blood,” he says. “It’s a way to keep tradition going, and it’s great to see the kids out there picking.”