By Rita Clagett
North Fork Bureau
HOTCHKISS—(January 1, 2014) In every way, Big B’s Fabulous Juices is a family business. The organic juice plant was founded more than 40 years ago by Bernie Heideman and his wife, in a historic 110 year-old fruit packing shed along the railroad tracks in Hotchkiss. Under Schwartz family ownership since 2002, Big B’s has increased its juice processing from 500,000 pounds of apples a season to 4,000,000. Yup, that’s right, four million pounds of apples a season.
The math staggered me. I had arrived to interview Jeff Schwartz at the end of an especially long cold day. He was moving apple bins with a forklift, and when he finished he waved at more bins full of every color apple. “We’re up this year from three thousand bins to over four thousand,” he said. “A thousand pounds of apples in each bin, and ninety percent of them are grown here in the North Fork Valley.”
Jeff and his wife Tracey are major stakeholders in the business, which is a significant contributor to the North Fork economy, and last November won “Hotchkiss Business of the Year.” Big B’s employs several extended families and buys apples from more than a dozen small, medium and large orchards in the valley. Four million pounds of apples!
Jeff acknowledges that his locally sourced, organic cold-pressed cider costs a little bit more than commercial cider, but says they try to price wisely. “If you want to take a gallon of cider home for eight dollars, it’s probably worth it when you figure it takes four people a week to drink it.” No wonder: It takes more than forty apples to create a gallon of Big B’s apple cider. That’s ten organic apples a week per person in a four-person family. That’s healthy!
We stepped out of the crisp afternoon cold and into the dimness of one of the newer buildings to begin our tour. He showed me where the bins are dumped and apples get sorted and washed, and then the juicing line and bottling lines. In this loud bright room, giant bags of jugs and gleaming tanks stand waiting to be filled as people move apples through the process of getting ground into pumice and then squeezed into juice.
“We juice all day long, about 40 bins a day, pressing from 7 or 8 a.m. til 4 o’clock, from September through February, filling tanks as we go,” Jeff says over the din of the grinding and juicing machines. The leftover pulp shoots from the end of the line through a chute to the outside, straight into a waiting 40-yard dump truck. “This closes the loop,” Jeff says enthusiastically. “We fill this once a week and sell it to a local compost maker, and then we use some of that compost in our orchards.”
Besides the fresh cider, Big B’s website displays six flavors of organic apple juice, and several other organic or all-natural beverages. Every aspect of Big B’s takes into account environmental impact, from this bioregional ethic to their choice of HDPE plastic bottles rather than glass, calculating a carbon footprint based on the best, healthiest and most environmentally friendly choices they can make for their methods and their customers.
“From the supply side,” Jeff says, “we have a very strong place. It’s an industry just based around moving the apples and the liquids. Hard cider is the wave of our future. It’s even more profitable because it’s value-adding to Big B’s. It’s truly the most efficient and sustainable localized alcohol, it’s apples.”
He adds, “The biggest acreage of western slope fruit is right here in the North Fork Valley. White Buffalo, Ela Family Farms, First Fruits, and other orchards. Rogers Mesa Fruit makes viable the fruit industry here, because without a packing shed you’re had.” Big B’s gets apples from some of the larger organic orchards in the valley and also mid-size and backyard orchards.
By now we have moved into the fermentation room, where Big B’s apples transform in the hands of skilled brewer Shawn Larson into five flavors of hard cider sold under the North Fork Cellars label.
“Our focus now is to supply our tasting room, feeding our home base,” he says happily. “Anything bigger than that is gravy. Our ciders are getting more mature and better as we start to learn more about it. It’s a fun little alcohol, it’s light… a fun little buzz.”
Then we descend into the cellar, a low-ceilinged room with a concrete floor, filled with barrels and crates of various apple products. Throughout the tour we have continually passed by palettes of crates of ciders and juices and pallets of apples, and inhaled subtly shifting aromas through the different rooms. We wind up in the employee break room, where we settle into chairs with a couple of bottles of hard cider and two paper cups between us, as we relax from interview into conversation.
Jeff and his wife Tracey moved to the valley from Flagstaff in 2000, after trying for awhile there to farm in the Arizona desert. Both were involved in environmental and social activism before and after their marriage, but after awhile, he says, “We knew we wanted to farm and not just be running around fighting. If I didn’t have to pick up arms I wasn’t going to fight a political battle. So that’s what we got to do, that’s our way of fighting. We want to give our kids a small skill set and the confidence and ability to survive. That’s what drives everything we do, those two kiddos.”
Jeff and Tracey also own Delicious Orchards in Paonia. Over the years, they’ve transformed a packing shed into a delightful farm store offering Big B’s products, great local organic foods including cheese and seasonal vegetables, and local arts, crafts and books. A tasting bar refreshes visitors with Big B’s hard ciders as well as many local wines. Tracey is an ace knitter, and a small wall of the store overflows with a rainbow of fine yarns. A café serves food made from local ingredients, and a campground nestled in the orchard boasts views of the surrounding mountains. Saturdays in summer often host an all-day barbecue with live local music, and for a small membership fee, members get a 5% store discount and monthly specials.
Throughout fruit season, Delicious Orchards sells their own organic fruits and is a popular U Pick destination for locals and travelers alike. This family-friendly activity is a lot of fun for everyone, with low limbs for kids and ladders throughout the orchards for the more adventurous. It’s a great way to spend a few hours and come home with a bounty of fresh cherries, pears, peaches or apples, depending on what’s ripe for the picking.
We come inevitably to the topic on everybody’s minds, industrial development in this agricultural promised land. Jeff says, “Yeah, higher intensity fracking of the valley… Wouldn’t it be a shame if what we don’t know about it does negatively affect this bottomland, this place for habitation and growing food for a small but greater bioregion? I believe in this place and in the people of this place, and the historical and ancient value of this place. I believe we will fend it off. Because of the experience and the sacrifice of people elsewhere that have suffered from it, we’ve learned a lot.”
By now, half the hard cider is gone from the bottles. They must have holes in them somewhere. Big B’s employees start to trickle through the break room on their way home for the day. Jeff greets them all by name, “Bye, see you tomorrow, thanks!” And they respond in kind with smiles and waves. There is an ease of being, a family feel, during this end of the day ritual.
I remark upon how hard he must work as the main man in this thriving fruit growing and processing operation. Jeff’s reply sums up his motivation and inspiration:
“I am driven because it’s a blessing and a dream. I dreamed this when I was nine or ten years old, helping my dad with the tomato plants on the porch. To realize it… is just so amazing. Things are good, things are as good as we could ever expect or want.”
Jeff Schwartz of Big B’s. Photos by Rita Clagett.