THE FRUIT MAN

written by SANDY GARSON


Dick Keough is one of Maine’s secrets. He is never mentioned in the crowing about Maine’s glorious farm-to-table boom or bulletins about its intriguing historical crop-growing movement. He’s not known to the organic gatekeepers at MOFGA or the Food Sovereignty brigade from Blue Hill, not even to writers of food magazine articles. He’s only known to faithful patrons of farmers’ markets in the Brunswick area as the guiding light of Keough Family Farm, or—given the farm’s focus—as “the fruit man.”

Since the late 1970s, Keough (pronounced Kyew) has been bringing to Brunswick a dozen different varieties of apples, six varieties of plums including the elite Damson, two different peaches, several kinds of apricots, black raspberries, sour cherries of three types, sweet Rainier cherries, black cherries, highbush blueberries, lowbush Maine blueberries, three pears (Clapp, Bartlett and Bosc), raspberries, blackberries and cranberries—still only a portion of what was growing at his orchard in Hebron. Sometimes there could be hazelnuts and walnuts.

All of it has come with memorable advice, like “Don’t buy apple cider until after the frost because that cold brings out the sugar that keeps the cider from turning.” Or “These are the best plums for eating. Use these other ones for cooking.” And “These pears won’t store well.”

Sometimes it has come with a bonus. Keough impulsively and enthusiastically whips out a secret stash (maybe he didn’t have a big enough crop to feature, or thought the fruit looked too bruised) and gives it away. “A gift from me,” he likes to say, even if money is tight. And it is, which is one reason the farm never applied for certified organic status, even though Keough restrains the use of pesticides on his fruit.

The advice generously shared with the fruit comes from Keough’s rugged experience planting, nurturing, experimenting with and harvesting nearly all the trees, vines and bushes on his 7½- acre farm along a ridge in the Oxford Hills. He has been working that ridge since 1976, when he bought part of an old farm up there, not too far from where he grew up on a farm in Auburn.

“I found an old book that got me going,” he says: “Five Acres and Independence.” M.G. Kains wrote the Depression era how-to to encourage small farming as a path toward economic self-sufficiency—the book is still available—and young Dick Keough embraced that as his idea of living the good life. The acreage, he says, was basically outlined with a perimeter of several hundred apple trees, old-variety apple trees which he set to restoring. For extra income while crops were getting established, he worked as a custodian at nearby Hebron Academy, mostly riding the Zamboni around its ice rink.

Over the years—sometimes in consultation with the Apple Experimental Station in Geneva, New York—Keough added newer varieties, eventually growing what he says were 40 kinds. He had the usuals (Macs, Macouns, Cortlands); the heritage (Black Oxford, Baldwin, Ben Davis, Northern Spy, which he lost in the ’80s); early apples in August that are not keepers as he would warn (Paula Red, Wealthy, August Sweets); the moderns (Granny Smith, Red Delicious); and the unusual. Among these were Winesaps (a mid-Atlantic apple rare in New England, that’s never in supermarkets and is sometimes considered the Cadillac of apples), and Mutsu, which starts green and turns yellow and seems to be among the hardiest varieties. He has become so knowledgeable from his trial-and-error and reading, he schooled me in the multitude of varieties grown in Maine for my book How to Fix a Leek, a month-by-month guide to Maine’s farmers’ markets—and nobody said I got it wrong!

Part of Keough’s farm economy was to turn all the apples too small to be sold at markets (under 2¼ inches in diameter) into cider that he could sell, using a neighbor’s press. But the cider is gone now along with the apples because climate changes have made ridge-top farming precarious. About seven years ago, after two consecutive springs when a warm April (which encouraged the trees to set buds) was followed by a late May frost at higher elevations that killed them all, Keough lost his entire apple orchard except for the Mutsu trees. The third spring he tried to save the trees, but they had not enough life left in them.

“What can you do?” he shrugged at the time of the disaster. “You just have to keep plugging away. That’s farming.”

The late frost that killed his apples also destroyed the considerable orchard of plums he planted, including the precious Damsons sought by cooks. He lost three kinds of black, Italian prune plums: Big Blue, yellow and Stanley. Climate changes killed his apricot trees and cranberry bogs. He nursed some peach trees, one apricot and a few sour cherry trees back to production. Then came the hurricane two summers ago with winds that took out all the fruit he hoped to sell. But Keough does not give up. He held on to his black raspberries—a hard-to-find treat—and highbush blueberries. There are still a few wild blackberries, and as always he saves them for regular customers.

There’s no one now to pick the low wild Maine blueberries, so although he has plenty, they don’t come to market. In the early years, Keough had hands-on help from his wife, Carlene, and their two daughters. Then about 20 years ago, his oldest daughter, Stephanie, moved to the Midwest for college and stayed for marriage and work. This past October, Carlene, who was also his market day partner, passed away after a summerlong battle with brain cancer. It was the first season since 1979 that Dick was not at the markets. But Keough Family Farm was there, represented by his son-in-law, Jason, who came mostly with fruit-filled and other pastries from The Farmer’s Daughter in Paris, Maine. That farmer’s daughter is his wife, Keough’s younger child, Becky, to whom he gives all that’s left of his fruits. He is, as he says, down but not out.

Keough Family Farm is the longest consecutive vendor at the Brunswick Farmers Market, but it now features not what the farmer but the farmer’s daughter produces. With Jason’s help, Keough is still bringing his popular lettuce plugs grown in the hothouses as well as greens like kale, chard and miner’s lettuce, which he sells as a “mixed bag.” He sees climate changes in the disappearance of bright red legged lily beetles he used to see on his Easter lilies. He thinks changing climate has killed off the honeybees, so he doesn’t have anything to sell in jars anymore. “But,” he says with his characteristic generosity, “we have plenty of other bees and five kinds of wasps and they do all the pollinating for me. You just can’t knock down their nests.”

Keough is still tending the enormous six-foot-wide mulberry trees he planted years ago to keep the birds busily distracted from pecking at the fruit trees. He learned early in his farming endeavor that Cedar Waxwings, which he calls “fruit birds,” return to Maine very early in spring because they love the fruit blossoms. “They’re birds of habit,” he noticed. “They’ve always nested in the orchard here, so they come back regularly, always two or three  days before the apple blossoms petals, just ready to feast.” But no blossoms, no fruits. So for years now, he’s diverted them to the mulberries. Sometimes he does that to his market customers too: he boxes up a few pints to sell. The mulberry is white but turns purple.

This fall, he revealed that for the last 12 years, he’s been “playing with kiwi,” a Chinese gooseberry New Zealanders played with in the middle of the 20th century. Ready to market it commercially, they changed its name to the catchier “kiwi,” after their national bird. The fruit grows on vines that take 10 years to mature and produce enough fruit for a crop.

According to David T. Handley, vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Monmouth, “There have been several farmers who have ‘played with kiwis’ over the years. Mark Fulford at Teltane Farm in Munroe was one of the first, and there have been others. There was a small trial of hardy kiwis at the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station in Monmouth back in the 1980s and there are still a few vines tended there for demonstration purposes. They are a challenging crop to grow in Maine as they have limited hardiness, are labor and capital intensive, and face an uncertain market. But farmers are nothing if not optimistic and willing to gamble a bit...”

That describes Dick Keough. Although kiwis won’t tolerate temperatures below 10°, which happen in Hebron, he says the fruit is hardy and grows so quickly it can compensate for losses. “If Mother Nature’s kind to me,” the fruit man says, “I may finally bring a few to market in 2022.”

Stay tuned…

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