With spring weather finally spreading across the Plains, it's only a few more weeks before the iconic mulberry trees, so common in the region, will be loaded with inky purple fruit and swarming with hungry birds.

At least one farmer in Southern Colorado thinks these trees could hold the key to a new niche model of fruit production capable of thriving in a future with less irrigation water.

Dan Hobbs, who is best known for raising gourmet garlic and organic seed, has a specialty crop grant, funded by USDA and administered through the state agriculture department, to look at a new production system for farms along the upper Arkansas, where irrigation water is becoming more restricted.

"The concept is a mulberry and pie cherry orchard with pollinator plants," he explained recently.

The idea came from observing what was already doing well on his Avondale farm.

"We have some mulberries on our property that were probably planted around the time of the New Deal," he said. "They are very large trees. They haven't been watered in years and yet they bear fruit every single year. They flower late (so the blossoms aren't at risk from a late freeze) and they don't need much water, and there are no mulberries to speak of on the market."

Whether there is commercial demand for mulberries is an open question. Though they are easy to pick and eat right off the tree, the berries also are fragile, which means they would probably have to be frozen prior to sale, Hobbs said.

"There may be a certain amount that could be sold fresh, but that's going to be kind of dicey, because they would have to get to the market very quickly," he said. "I think most of it would have to be picked and frozen in convenient-sized containers to sell to restaurants and folks who want to use them for making value-added products like jams, jellies and spirits."

Mulberries are not an overly sweet fruit, with a delicate flavor already popular in flavored wine or preserves, he noted.

The craft distilling market in particular looks promising.

"A lot of these craft distillers are getting pretty innovative with their spirits," Hobbs said. "That's part of the work we want to do with this grant is to reach out to potential buyers."

Pie cherries are not new to the area but less prevalent than they once were.

"Historically, sour cherries were big business in the Arkansas Valley," he said.

Hobbs is devoting 2½ acres to a densely planted orchard with about 460 trees.

"What really intrigued me about setting up a tree system is that we've got a lot of open country out here and not a lot of cover — so why not do what we can to create more pollinator habitat by planting the alleys with pollinator plants to encourage more native pollinators and honeybees?" he said.

Pollinators are vital to agricultural production.

"I grow carrot seed and fennel seed, and the diversity of native bees, wasps and flies I see on those plants is just incredible. I still don't know how to identify them all. But there is great insect diversity there," he said. "As a seed grower, I want to encourage as many beneficial insects as possible for pollination, but also to have the predatory insects to help me control crop pests."

Specialty crops grant-holders had a chance to give updates on their projects during the recent Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention, held in conjunction with the Governor's Forum on Colorado Agriculture.

The Ag Marketing Service at USDA has awarded the Colorado Department of Agriculture nearly $700,000 for the specialty crop grants program through 2020.

Other projects being funded include production research and technical support for Mark Uchanski's specialty crops program at Colorado State University; an annual Colorado exhibit at the Produce Marketing Association fresh summit, the largest produce marketing expo in the country; a farm-to-school project that uses high tunnels for high altitude produce growing; and another project looking at the optimal post-harvest methods for preserving and storing hops.

AMS defines specialty crops as "fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops, including floriculture."

The grants are especially important with the current depressed farm economics and as weather patterns evolve in unpredictable ways, Hobbs said. Low commodity prices in particular make it hard for farmers to justify experimenting with new approaches just when they need them the most, he added.

"Farmers being a conservative lot in most cases are not going to spend the extra money to try something new, so this money is a stimulus, a catalyst, to try new things. That's very important for on-farm innovation, particularly with the sort of climate change factors we're dealing with now," he said. "Going forward, we need to have more tools in our toolbox."