Fire, flooding, restrictive lease may have ended harvests forever;
Two prominent politicians blame one another for a disaster.
New Mexico’s most famous orchard, where the trademark fruits were called Champagne and Sparkling Burgundy, will not yield a single edible apple this year.
Wildfire followed by floods did most of the damage. But two of the state’s high-profile politicians each blame the other for the desertion and possible death of Dixon’s Apple Orchard.
Republican Patrick Lyons, the state’s former commissioner of public lands, said his successor’s inaction helped wreck the orchard that was a state treasure.
Lyons said Democrat Ray Powell dismantled the 12-member fire crew that Lyons had established at the land office, leaving the orchard and its environs vulnerable to the wildfire that roared through northern New Mexico in 2011.
“He’s a do-nothing land commissioner. He’s just an old hippie from Nob Hill that doesn’t know anything about agriculture,” Lyons said of Powell.
For his part, Powell said the fire crew Lyons created had no real training or expertise. With a truck carrying a paltry 300 gallons of water, the crew could have died trying to reach the inferno that started the orchard’s decline, Powell said.
Powell said the real problem is that Lyons trapped the state with a restrictive lease that diminishes the orchard’s prospects of a comeback.
The 75-year lease is between the state land office and Jim and Becky Mullane, who operated the orchard.
Powell said Lyons drafted the 2007 agreement in a way to freeze out any possible competitors to the couple.
Now, Powell said, Lyons’ political maneuver has another consequence. It has blocked any immediate chance of landing a new operator to revive the orchard, where 2,600 suffering apple trees still stand.
Powell said the Mullanes could not simply start over after the fire for a simple reason: They had purchased no business insurance.
Lyons said he had been unaware of this fact, but that a failure to carry insurance probably was unwise on the Mullanes’ part.
Without an insurance settlement to help them start anew, the Mullanes proposed to transfer their lease on the orchard and 8,500 adjacent acres to San Felipe Pueblo, which would pay them $2.8 million.
Powell, left, said Lyons botched the deal
Thomas Hnasko, the couple’s attorney, said this plan is a ready solution to saving the orchard and compensating the Mullanes, who own the trees and the trademarks to the apples.
With their income from the deal with San Felipe, the Mullanes could start another orchard, perhaps in the Midwest. Hnasko said the Mullanes this week were in Minnesota.
But Powell said the lease transfer sought by the Mullanes was illegal, all because of the misguided handiwork of Lyons’ old administration at the land office.
Powell said Lyons drafted the lease in a way to fend off any competitors to the Mullanes. To bid on the orchard and surrounding land, the lease requires at least 20 years’ experience in running an orchard.
“Nobody but the Mullanes could qualify,” Powell said.
San Felipe Pueblo has no experience or expertise in the apple business, yet now the couple and Lyons want the state to hand it the lease, breaking the terms, Powell said.
The pueblo has proposed hiring a foreman who worked for the Mullanes to meet the experience requirement. Powell said the one-time employee could pull out tomorrow, leaving the orchard in the hands of pueblo that does not have any track record in mass production of apples.
For the sake of fairness, changing the requirements in the lease would require a public rebidding, Powell said. That way less experienced businesspeople also could compete to lease the orchard and the other 8,500 acres.
That land is attractive to the pueblo and perhaps other would-be bidders. It contains artifacts and is in close proximity to Bandelier National Monument.
After Powell declined to allow the lease transfer to San Felipe Pueblo, the Mullanes filed an appeal. It is to be heard in December by a retired judge.
Lyons said that process could drag for two more years. Lyons said the Mullaneshave little chance against the might of state government.
“They are just poor farmers,” he said.
Why not just transfer the lease to San Felipe Pueblo and give it a crack at running the orchard? Lyons asked.
He said such a deal should have been made already, on condition that the pueblo pay for a new irrigation system that would cost more than $500,000. The former system was destroyed, leaving the orchard without a practical means of watering its trees.
Powell has used his office’s resources to truck water to the apple trees, a system Lyons ridiculed as ineffective.
“If I were still the land commissioner, that orchard would be operating,” said Lyons, now chairman of the State Public Regulation Commission. “I would have found a solution to this.”
Harry Relkin, general counsel for the State Land Office, said talks with the Mullanes’ attorney were ongoing. But, Relkin said, the lease that Lyons engineered is an albatross.
If the case proceeds to litigation, Powell would still be able to reject any recommendation on a lease transfer. That could lead to more appeals, more court proceedings, more discord, and still no operator for the orchard.
Because of the natural disasters, the orchard is not nearly as attractive as it once was from a business standpoint, Powell said.
The 20,000 acres above the orchard were hit by fire and flooding. Trees there were wiped out, leaving the orchard with less protection than ever if another mix of fire and flooding should occur.
This could hurt any efforts to land an experienced operator who could restart the orchard, Powell said.
Dixon’s Apple Orchard traces its roots to 1944. Now, in this summer of discontent, hope for a future may be as fragile as the ailing apple trees.
Fire, flooding and a restrictive lease may have ended the harvests forever.