On a breezy summer afternoon, 78-year-old Gordon Kenyon paces the rows of his orchard, plucking unripe peaches. The merciless process, he says, is painful for younger farmers, but it leaves the remaining fruit with the necessary space and nutrients to grow. The blue sky matches Kenyon’s blue eyes, and his hands are dusted with earth. He’s missing part of one finger, lost to a Volkswagen fan belt decades ago.
In the 37 years since he planted the first peach tree on his 200-acre Locust Grove Farm, in Albion, Gordon Kenyon has dialed in the process of growing peaches outside their usual habitat, far from the balmier places where the fruit typically thrives — Georgia, South Carolina, California. Kenyon is no stranger to inhospitable environments. In 1980, he was living in Oregon, 100 miles south of the actively erupting Mount St. Helens. From his deck, he watched columns of ash shoot miles into the air and then blanket his town. Then a high-school biology teacher with a background in forestry, he joined an expedition of scientists to periodically survey the mountain’s changing landscape. Family ties eventually pulled him east, but he brought along chunks of Mount St. Helens’s fractured dome, now displayed throughout his house.
At first, Kenyon farmed raspberries in Maine, but the berries struggled in the summer humidity, suffering from frequent fungal infections and low yields. Five years in, he called it quits, wondering where to turn next. A friend asked why he hadn’t considered peaches, and that’s when a light bulb went off: Kenyon didn’t know of anyone else making a living off peach farming in Maine, but while he’d been busy wrestling with those temperamental raspberries, a dozen or so peach trees on his property, planted as almost an afterthought, had flourished on their own. Now, he grows many types of peaches on thousands of trees. There are white-fleshed peaches and yellow-fleshed peaches. There are red havens and Madisons and Saturn peaches, the latter named for their flattened, disk-like resemblance to the ringed planet. When the crop ripens, generally from mid-August through early September, customers stand in lines that snake through the farm and spill out into neighboring roads. Peach lovers, brewers, bakers, and restaurateurs all wait for a share of the harvest.
Each type of peach tree on Kenyon’s farm is tested for cold-hardiness, to ensure it can tolerate Maine’s harsh winters and shorter-than-average growing seasons. Then, there’s the constant battle against a rotating legion of peach-loving pests — fruit flies, beetles, stink bugs, squirrels, moths, turkeys. Rather than worry from the sidelines, he tries to head off threats. After a few decades of trial and error, he discovered, “The turkeys come right back if you shoot up in the air. But if you take a hen, you’ll never see them again.”
That experimentative spirit manifests in other ways too. Drought has plagued Maine agriculture in recent years, so in a far corner of the orchard, Kenyon has PVC pipes sticking out of the ground, creating direct access to trees’ root systems. Inspired by research out of Washington State University, he hopes that by watering through the pipes, he can do more with less. And no amount of adversity is likely to make him halt his pursuit of new ways to sustain the orchard. As he puts it, he’s never been to Florida and doesn’t plan to visit. However, if his wife, Marilyn, outlives him, he’s given her permission to cut everything down. “But this is your legacy!” she protests. “It’s okay,” Kenyon says, “I will not know.”