If this summer goes as expected, Maine will have enjoyed three straight years of great peach seasons. In some cases growers have scored record harvests for their orchards.

Peaches are so thick on the trees at Libby & Sons in Limerick this summer the grower has had to hand-thin the branches three times, according to owner Aaron Libby. The orchard planted 200 more peach trees in spring 2018, a new acre’s worth, he said.

Peaches growing at Libby & Sons orchard in Limerick. Photo by Derek Davis

At the University of Maine’s Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, tree fruit specialist Renae Moran says she’s expecting a bumper crop.

“Winters have been a few degrees warmer in the last 10 years, just enough to encourage us to plant peach trees,” she said. “I planted 100 trees this spring, 11 different varieties as a test to see which ones survive and bear fruit.”

Is Maine, traditionally a place where peach trees have struggled, about to become a peach tree paradise? Especially since growers in southern states are struggling with the effects of climate change?

Not necessarily.

Moran says she doesn’t expect peaches to be planted in Maine on a large scale anytime soon because the agricultural world still considers them too risky here. Maine growers do love the fruit, she said, for several reasons: It costs less to establish peach trees in an orchard than apple trees, for one, and peaches sell at a better price than apples. (The average price per pound for peaches at Maine farm stands or pick-your-own orchards is $3 per pound, Moran said, compared with $1 per pound for apples). Plus, peaches are in high demand. Research in New England has shown that peaches will draw customers from much farther away than apples, Moran said.

But peach trees have a short average life span, just seven years in Maine compared with apple trees, which can get close to the century mark. Also, despite recent warmer winters, weather conditions in Maine still make growing commercial peaches a dicey proposition, Moran said. Peach trees bloom late enough in Maine that they often escape frost damage, but too much severe cold (below -20 degrees) over the winter can kill them. Too much winter warmth, on the other hand, fools the trees into thinking spring is here; follow that up with a deep freeze, and it kills the buds. This is what happened in 2016, when commercial growers in southern New England saw their buds appear with warmer-than-usual weather, only to be wiped out by a deep freeze in February. If the temperatures in winter dip below -15 degrees, peach trees will produce little or no fruit the following summer.

“It’s definitely a high risk–high reward crop,” Libby said. “No one is doing large scale wholesale (in New England).”

Aaron Libby, of Libby & Son U-Picks farm in Limerick, recently planted another acre of peach trees. Photo by Derek Davis

So why did Libby & Sons plant more trees? Diversification. Libby not only wants to have a variety of fruits available for customers to pick, but he also wants to diversify to guard against disaster when Mother Nature turns nasty. If one fruit crop fails, he’s still got others to make up for the loss of income.

Also, large, commercial peach orchards pick their peaches early, before they ripen on the tree, to ship to grocery stores and avoid the fruit rotting or bruising. Smaller, pick-your-own orchards like his, he said, sell ripe fruit with “a flavor intensity you can’t get anywhere else.” Which peach would you rather eat, he asks?

There are, as yet, no commercial wholesale growers in Maine – the line for growing commercially is drawn in western Massachusetts. And across the state, so few peaches are grown that no one keeps statistics on the size of the Maine crop. (The northernmost peach trees in Maine are grown in Enfield, about 40 miles north of Bangor, according to Moran.)

Moran doesn’t believe peaches will reach the same level of production as apples in Maine in her lifetime. But she still advises hobbyists to plant peaches because they are easier to grow than apples, and because tree-ripened peaches are hard to find in supermarkets.

The Locust Grove orchard in Albion has grown peaches since the mid-1980s, and today has 1,300 trees representing 15 varieties, making it the largest peach orchard in Maine. Colleen Hanlon-Smith, who recently took over its management, emphasizes the importance of siting a peach orchard in a good microclimate, and notes it takes four years for a peach tree to produce fruit. She also cautions that because so few peaches are grown in Maine, the state hasn’t yet had to deal with the pests that are attracted to large crops. (Locust Grove uses no chemical sprays on their peaches, not even organic sprays.)

Still, she sees the fruit as “an exciting opportunity for farmers to diversify.”

“They remain tricky but it’s possible,” she said, “and the demand is there. I’m excited about the potential.”

 

 


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