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York County fruit farm adjusts with the climate

Climate change has presented both challenges and opportunities for the Libby family, owners of Libby & Son U-Picks Fruit & Farm in York County.
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LIMERICK, Maine — It was a perfect spring day. Aaron Libby and I jumped in his four-wheeler and cruised up and down rows of flowering fruit trees. The sweet smells of the blossoms were intoxicating. 

"We've got apples here and blueberries there. Raspberries, peaches, and plums are beyond them." Libby said.

He and his family have been growing fruit trees on their York County farm for three generations. His dad and grandfather started the farm with apples. Aided by a warming climate, they branched out and began dabbling in other fruit crops, especially popular fruits like peaches and plums. 

Known as stone fruits, peaches and plums prefer a slightly warmer climate, similar to the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. However, the temperature trend in Maine over the last several decades has risen, enabling this crop to better flourish in the Pine Tree State.

Credit: NCM

Growing these specialty crops comes with big risks. Libby explained how important having a consistent winter snowpack is for a healthy farm. 

"Absolutely. It's like a blanket on top. It keeps the ground temperature more moderate. If you didn't have any snow that cold is going to seep in more," Libby said.  

Without snow the trees are much more exposed to cold and northern latitude weather, making them susceptible to disease and damaged fruit.

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Another downside to a warming climate is a premature start to the growing season. If temperatures warm too much in late winter or early spring that can cause serious damage. 

"An earlier season is great. It gets things going. Especially for us, we want to get things open early. However, those blossoms are very tender. If you get a cold snap, you can get wiped out," he said. 

A damaged blossom means imperfect or even nongerminating fruit. 

"If we are in bloom and get temps below 28 degrees, we can get 100% wiped out. You'll lose all your blossoms and you're done," the farmer said. 

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That's what happened a few years ago when most of New England lost its peach crop. The region had a late winter warm-up, and the trees came alive and blossomed. After the flowers opened up, a cold snap wiped them out. 

"I think it was like five years ago. It was called the Valentine's Day Massacre. That knocked out New England's peach crop," Libby said. 

Having the option and ability to grow a variety of fruits has been great for the Libby & Son U-Picks Fruit & Farm customer who can now pick different fruits throughout the entire growing season, not just in the fall.

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The changing climate has Libby a little nervous about what the future may bring. 

"We're working with Mother Nature. If we get huge dieback from a cold snap, or lose our blossoms, there's only so much you can take," he said. "However, the great thing about agriculture is that the industry can't go away. We need it."

Credit: NCM

Libby & Son U-Picks Fruit & Farm opens in late June or early July with blueberries and raspberries and continues through the summer and autumn months with pick-your-own stone fruit and apples. Find out more about the farm here.

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