That groaning you hear is the sound of a peach tree leaning over in a local orchard, its fruit-laden limbs about to snap under the weight of this year’s crop.

Peaches are hard to grow in Maine, and crops the past couple of years have been so dismal that growers could practically count on one hand the number of peaches they got, if any.

But this year’s harvest is peaking now, and “it’s a major bumper crop,” said Guy Paulin, owner of Brackett’s Orchards in Limington, where he tends to 150 trees.

“The trees are really loaded, and it’s been kind of dry, so the peaches are a little bit smaller than usual,” he said. “But we’re lucky to have peaches at all, because most years we’re too far north, and we just don’t get the production we should.”

Paulin and other growers say this is the biggest peach harvest they’ve ever had, even after thinning the trees regularly to give the fruit room to grow and keep branches from breaking.

“We should have thinned more,” said Ann Stevens, who has been growing peaches with her husband, Howard, for 30 years at Foxes Ridge Farm in Acton. “We’ve got a lot of peaches.”

Last week, a little overwhelmed, the Stevenses opened their orchards to pick-your-own visitors for the first time ever so their fruit could be harvested and eaten before it rots.

At Libby & Son U-Picks in Limerick, “We actually already had our best year ever on peaches, and we’re not even halfway through them,” said Aaron Libby, one of the owners.

He credits the months of January and February, which were “really perfect for fruit growing.”

Renae Moran, a fruit tree specialist at the University of Maine, backs that up.

“It was a good winter for peaches because we didn’t have a week of temperatures in the 70s,” she said. “That’s what undoes peaches. It tells them that springtime is here, and they start growing too soon. Then we get another deep freeze and it kills the flower buds.”

Stevens said peach trees produce blossoms about an inch to inch-and-a-half apart, “and this year I think every blossom set a peach.”

QUITE A CHANGE FROM LAST YEAR’S ‘MASSACRE’

Peach orchards are more common, and larger, in the southern part of the state because of the fruit’s sensitivity to cold. The northernmost peach trees in Maine are grown in Enfield, about 40 miles north of Bangor, Moran said. Across the state, so few peaches are grown here that no one keeps statistics on the size of the crop.

Last year, commercial growers in southern New England saw their flower buds wiped out by a deep freeze in February that they labeled “the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.”

Art Kelly, owner of Kelly Orchards in Acton, harvested just a dozen peaches last year off his 3½ acres of peach trees. This year, “we’re kind of struggling to keep up with the picking, to tell you the truth.”

In Maine, peaches do better when they are grown on warmer hilltops where colder air drains into the valleys below. Joel Gilbert, owner of Berry Fruit Farm in Livermore, has hilltop trees, and this year the crop is “the best I’ve ever had, absolutely, and the quality is just fantastic.” He’s had to hire help to thin the fruit so it won’t be too small.

Backyard orchardists also are having a bountiful year. Jesse McAvoy of Westbrook, who has planted 90 percent of his half-acre homestead into food crops, saw his first peach tree bear fruit for the first time this summer.

“We ended up, shockingly, with about 36 pounds,” he said. “They’re not huge peaches, so there was a lot of them.”

McAvoy made nine half-pints of salted brown sugar peach jam and froze the rest of the fruit for use in smoothies or more jam.

“I couldn’t believe how juicy they were,” he said.

PORTLAND RESTAURANTS CAPITALIZE ON HARVEST

Peaches may be scarcer in Maine than in other parts of the country, but for the Maine eater, they have the advantage of not being picked too early, only to sit – hard as a rock – on a delivery truck for days until they reach a grocery store.

“A tree-ripened peach is supposed to be soft,” Gilbert said, “and the juice runs down your face and your arms when you eat it.”

Kelly said he generally picks his peaches just a day or two before he knows they will be eaten. The timing is delicate.

“I’m out there every day biting peaches and squeezing peaches and looking at the color,” he said.

Portland restaurants are benefiting from this year’s bounty. Scales, on the city’s waterfront, is making peach butter and putting the fruit into galettes. At Central Provisions on Fore Street, roasted local peaches are being served on a thyme biscuit with sweet corn ice cream. Union, the restaurant in the Press Hotel, is offering a summer peach and roasted jalapeño gazpacho.

Peach growers prefer simpler preparations.

“I was thinking today a peach pie would be nice,” Paulin said.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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