There is just something about the taste of a tree-ripened peach that attracts taste buds of all ages. Its juicy sweetness grabbed hold of Gordon and Marilyn Kenyon early on while the two were living out west. When the couple moved to Maine in the 1980s, their palates yearned for the succulent fruit that always seemed to evade them. So, in 1985 the Kenyons decided to plant their roots and a few peach trees in the small town of Albion, where today their love for one another and for peaches continues to bloom.
“When you handle and taste a peach that’s right off the tree and almost perfectly ripe, you become a fan very quickly,” Gordon Kenyon admitted. “We got used to eating peaches when we lived out west in Washington and eventually Oregon. When we bought this location, we started looking for anything that tasted like a decent peach. Of course, there was none to be found. So I planted some.”
The first trees Kenyon planted back in 1985 basically took care of themselves, budding a bounty of peaches each August. When they were ready to be picked, Kenyon would take them off the trees and sell whatever quantity he had to neighbors and motorists traveling by his Locust Grove farm on Quaker Hill Road.
“I’d just open the door of my garage and customers would be in my yard,” Kenyon said. “Then in 2000, I said to myself, ‘What would happen if I actually took care of the peach trees?’ So I started planting peaches in an effort to actually raise peaches. I now have 14 different varieties, and the reason for that is to try and extend my season, because each variety produces at a different time in the summer.”
Despite Kenyon’s green thumb, peaches can be a finicky fruit to produce in Maine and other parts of the United States. At Locust Grove, all the peaches are grown without using any sprays.
“The average lifespan for a peach tree according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service is seven years, and the reason for that is because if you plant one in the wrong place, they are susceptible to cold and will freeze out,” Kenyon said. “I think one of my original peach trees is still living. It’s called the Belle of Georgia, which with a name like that you would think it wouldn’t do well, but it turns out it does very well. But peaches aren’t durable. When a peach is ready to be picked, you got to pick it and they have to be sold very quickly because they don’t have a shelf life.”
Colleen Hanlon-Smith, the former general manager of the Unity Food Hub, knows firsthand how the environment and location are key factors in whether or not peach trees thrive.
“I hope this becomes another item farmers can successfully and reliably grow, but there is a degree of risk. They do require micro-climates,” Hanlon-Smith said. “The site we’re at [at Locust Grove] is very unique. I love peaches, and when you bite into one of the Locust Grove tree ripened peaches it is, in my opinion, a drip down your chin taste of summer in Maine.”
In 2015, Kenyon reached out to Hanlon-Smith for help marketing his crop.
“It happened to be the year southern New England had a peach failure. What Colleen did was work with her markets and connections, and before the end of the summer we were selling our peaches in both Boston and New York City,” Kenyon reminisced. “That told me if there was anyone I wanted to be in the peach business with, it was her.”
Kenyon’s Locust Grove peaches have not only attracted loyal customers, they’ve also encouraged some to plant trees of their own.
“I’d say 25 percent or more of my peach tree customers are planting them. The next ridge over in Albion there’s another peach orchard, Bessey Ridge Orchards,” Kenyon said. “The two of us know each other pretty well. And as a matter of fact, we like each other. We’re friends. He’ll come over with a leaf in his hand and say, ‘What’s going on with this tree?’ So he’s looking for advice. There’s a big enough market, so I don’t think either one of us is interfering with each other’s business.”
However, after 30 years in peach production, Kenyon is ready to share the orchard and farming duties with the next generation. He and 33-year-old Hanlon-Smith have decided to become partners at Locust Grove, helping the farm’s raspberries, blueberries and peaches continue to prosper.
“We’re working together as a partnership initially and eventually it’ll all go over to her,” Kenyon said. “I am 76, but I’m not planning to hang up my peach basket anytime soon. Given my options, I will fall over in the orchard. And she’s aware of that and she can accept it.”
Hanlon-Smith is just as excited to work in the orchard alongside Kenyon. There, she hopes to soak up all the knowledge and advice he has to offer while surrounded by the love and beauty of peaches that he and his wife have successfully created.
“I’ve always entertained the idea of being a farmer. However, I felt my skills were best used in helping farmers find markets. This is an opportunity through Gordon to learn the production end of the equation, but not feel like I’m entering into a marketplace where there is a ton of other people doing it,” Hanlon-Smith explained. “I think that whether we see peaches become as big of an economic driver as lobsters are, or it is kind of a hidden jewel that exists in these microclimates of ridges where they can be grown, it’s a very special addition to Maine and I’m happy to be part of it.”
Locust Grove peaches are available the second week of August through the middle of September. They can also be found at the Belfast United Farmers Market and the Portland Farmers Market.
For more information, visit www.mainepeach.com.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s May 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.