We tend to think heroes are soldiers fearless in the fire of war or pilots with stoic skill that gets a dying plane on safe ground. We give ticker tape parades to guys who stay at bat to win a World Series and gold to those who zoom fastest down a snowy cliff. But what do we give besides a shrug to the farmer who year after year battles the onslaught of killing weather, the plagues of bugs and fungi, and backbreaking labor to get food to our home plate?
I personally think it’s awesome that twice a week at dawn Dick Keough still drives 25 miles to my local farmers’ market to set up a canvas canopy and chat cheerfully with customers who wander in to eye what he can display. For more than two decades, Dick has been the market’s “fruit man,” the go-to guy for whatever in this icy climate grows on trees: cherries, peaches, plums, pears and especially apples. Apples is actually his email name and he’s earned it over the years by showing up between mid August and late October with at least a dozen different kinds of apples you’d never see in a supermarket: Paulired, Tolman, August sweets, old-fashioned Baldwin… . Dick is the one who warned me—and lost a sale doing it—not to buy cider until the apples have been hit by frost. He knows fruit and is so sure of what he produces, he is always giving away samples. The apples he hands over claiming are delicious are not that ubiquitous mushy, tasteless, bumpy- bottom corporate one named Delicious to trick you.
I am a longtime fan of Dick’s plums and peaches as the key to great jam, crisps and tortes, so loyal that I once spent two frantically frustrating hours breaking all the gadgets in the drawer and slicing through my fingers trying to pit a shopping bag overflowing with his first crop of Damson plums (think fancy English preserves in a jar with the royal crown on its label, as I was thinking) because they were olive size. But I forgave him, because that was the year he started showing up with my most favorite apple: the hard to come-by, Mercedes of eating, “winesap.” If Snow White’s wicked witch held one out to me, I’d come hither and bite. I’m that foolish for its tart crunch and sweet juiciness—especially accompanied by a sliver of hard, salty cheese. I am in fact so foolish and they are indeed so hard to find, I once paid Dick to ship a box to me in California. And he took the trouble to do it because he knew how much I loved his fruit and had got used to shipping apples to his daughter after she left for college.
Depending on Dick as I do for my jam, pie and snack fruit makes me blurt at the sight of him back under his canvas canopy at the early May market some really burning questions: “How are my winesaps doing? Will there be lots this year?... And will you have apricots in August so I can make a tart?” Last year there were no winesaps because weather nipped them in the bud. There were no apricots either due to too much rain, and the year before there was only one half full shopping bag, which he gave me as a thank you present for my loyalty.
I cringe waiting for Dick’s answers to my eternal questions, having learned by asking them year after year that his life and livelihood is a crapshoot whose dice are heavily loaded against him. The odds on Maine weather were never all that favorable but climate change has made them hellishly insurmountable. We have no winter snow or a summer of monsoon rain. We have drought compounded by unprecedented heat, which brings new insects that just love new taste sensations. Or there is too much snow and thus too much melt that rots roots or cold that won’t quit until the end of June when it’s too late for trees to set their fruit.
Dick has orchards of lovingly tended trees hostage to circumstances beyond his control. Yet last week he was smiling, optimistically fussing with his display of lettuces when he said: “It’s all over, the apple business. No winesaps, no anything. Last year that surprise May frost killed all the fruit that set in the unnaturally warm April— peaches, apricots and all my apples. This year, I guess they were so weak from being off their clock, they’re all diseased and I don’t have $5,000 to bring them ‘round. I’m over 60 now and told my wife, we’re just too old to borrow money for something like this. There’s just no telling any more.”
“But the plums…those incredible jam plums…”
“Gone, all but the American kinds. Anything with a Japanese strain in it got hit hard by fungus. So, no, no Japanese or Italian plums this year either. …I will have sour cherries but they’re already sold to hotels, so I won’t have any here. No fruit this year, I guess,” he shrugged. “But I’ll be here anyway. Right now I’ve got lettuce, rhubarb and my daughter’s baking,” he added with a proud smile. “I’m gonna get through the season like I always do. I’ll have something. Don’t you worry.”