ALBION, Maine — So few peaches are harvested in Maine and northern New England that the cold-sensitive crop doesn’t officially count here, statistically or economically speaking.
But don’t tell that to grower Gordon Kenyon, 73, who owns Locust Grove Farm atop Quaker Hill in Albion. Near-total crop failure in southern New England this summer has meant that the sweet, juicy peaches from his 1,000 or so trees are in extremely high demand. The fruit, which he previously sold largely out of his garage, has been traveling south to Boston and even to New York City, where eateries and stores, including the famous gourmet grocer Dean & DeLuca, are scooping it up.
“They have been shipped from here in central Maine to New York City, believe it or not,” a marveling Kenyon said recently. “I’ve been wanting to expand my markets because of the increase in the numbers of trees I have. And this year I wanted to take advantage of the lack of peaches in southern New England.”
The lack of peaches elsewhere in the region was caused by the unseasonably warm winter that resulted in peach trees breaking their dormancy too early and the sudden deep freeze around Valentine’s Day, which killed their tender, vulnerable blossom buds. This so-called “Valentine’s Day Massacre” caused an estimated 90 percent loss to the New England crop and deep losses nearby, including in important peach-growing states such as New Jersey and New York. That’s no small potatoes, according to the publication Civil Eats, which reported that peach and nectarine production in New Jersey has a wholesale value to farmers of at least $30 million.
“All told, a few cold nights in February added up to millions of dollars of damage across the region,” the publication wrote in late July.pie
It’s not as if Kenyon’s farm — which isn’t even counted among the New England farms growing stone fruit — can fill the void by itself. But the weather event has meant an unusual opportunity for the farmer to expand his sales reach beyond his garage. For other growers in the state, it has allowed them to get the word out that, despite popular belief, peaches can be successfully and deliciously grown in Maine. The ongoing drought in much of Maine has meant that Kenyon’s peaches are much smaller than usual this year, but they don’t seem to be less sweet, he said.
Colleen Hanlon-Smith is the operations manager at the Unity Food Hub, a new company that aggregates, markets and distributes Maine foods from family farms and food businesses throughout northern New England, and she said that when she began hearing about the crop failure to the south, she got in touch with Kenyon.
“The way Gordon’s been selling his peaches is through his garage door. Folks give him a call and see if he’s picking that day,” she said. “This year I told him when the peaches come on strong, I’m here and ready to help you move this harvest. He figured he wouldn’t be able to sell all those peaches from his garage, and we’ve moved literally thousands of pounds of peaches in the last three weeks.”
Not all of that fruit has traveled to big-name New York City locales, she said. In fact, much of it has been moved throughout Maine with the help of pre-order programs run by the Portland and Belfast co-ops, the Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative in Vassalboro, and the Unity Food Hub’s own Maine Farm Share program. But the market for Kenyon’s peaches is bigger than the state of Maine, at least this year.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet victory,” Hanlon-Smith said. “But it is an awesome opportunity. I really see the peaches as a metaphor for all the high-quality, beautiful food that we have. It’s a great opportunity to get the word out there that Maine is serious about its growing and production.”
There are other peach growers in the state who take the fruit seriously, including Kelly Orchards in Acton, Pietree Orchard in Sweden, Robinson’s Orchard in Enfield and Berry Fruit Farm in Livermore. But perhaps no Mainer is crazier about peaches than Kenyon, who has been working on his orchards for more than 30 years. When he was young, the New England native moved to Oregon with his wife, Marilyn, and that’s where he fell in love with peaches.
“That’s how I first discovered really fresh, tree-ripened peaches,” he recalled.
In the 1980s, the couple decided to move back to New England so they could be close to their aging parents. But he didn’t want to move just anywhere and searched far and wide to find the perfect land. He found it on the 200-acre tract that formerly was used to grow potatoes. The hilltop land has something that is critical to produce peaches in a northern climate: air drainage.
“Cold air is dense. It slides off the hillsides and the valleys, the low areas, collect cold,” Kenyon said.
By contrast, his hilltop is warmer, allowing the peach trees to survive and even thrive. About 10 years ago, he got serious about peach production and has since planted hundreds more trees in 14 different varieties altogether. Having so many types of peaches ripen at different times extends the harvest over the month between Aug. 15 and Sept. 15. Peaches aren’t like apples, he said, which can stay on the tree until you are ready to take them off.
“Once peaches are ripe, you might have just a few days to get them off the tree” he said. “They can’t sit and wait. They tell you when it’s time to pick.”
He also has made the decision not to spray the fruit with chemicals, which is certainly not made by all peach growers. The fruit is a perennial on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of produce that contains pesticides.
But Kenyon’s peaches, which are never sprayed, can be eaten with confidence right off the tree. On an August day, he picks a peach that is perfect and hands it to a visiting reporter to sample. It’s a good day in the orchard, with a trace of white clouds high in the bright blue sky overhead and the symphonic late-summer sound of crickets in the background, to definitively and positively decide that Maine can and does grow amazing peaches.
“One of my wife’s brothers lives in Virginia, and somebody asked a question about Georgia peaches,” Kenyon said. “He said the best peaches in the world are grown right here in Albion.”
Gordon Kenyon sells peaches most afternoons from his garage at Locust Grove Farm at 379 Quaker Hill Road in Albion, but shoppers should call 437-4585 to make sure peaches will be available that day.