By Lyna Bentahar
ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Farm Tour & Harvest Sale was held last weekend for two days starting on July 27, to celebrate the event’s 30th anniversary. The county’s Office of Agriculture presented the tour as a promotion of the agricultural industry, which often goes unnoticed by people who live in cities.
Nineteen farms participated in the tour, including fruit farms, such as Homestead Farm and Kingsbury Orchard. These were just a few of the more than 500 farms and 350 horticultural enterprises in the county, contributing approximately $282 million to the county’s economy, according to the Office of Agriculture.
The farm tours have been an opportunity for both farms to get first-time customers and remind the community that the reserve is here for people to enjoy.
“A lot of folks from the city don’t realize how close we are,” said Gene Kingsbury, owner of Kingsbury Orchard. “As a result, a lot of people don’t bother to come out from the cities. But we wish people would and take advantage of it.”
Many of these farms are protected by the Agricultural Reserve, a designated area in the county dedicated to farmland and green space preservation. It has given the county the highest percentage of agricultural land preservation easements in the United States, according to the office of agriculture.
“My big thing is that it’s good to get people out here and understand what the Agricultural Reserve means to Montgomery County,” said Kingsbury. “Without the Ag Reserve, we wouldn’t be here.”
The reserve was dedicated in 1980, but many farms in the county have existed for generations.
Kingsbury Orchard was founded in 1907 as a dairy operation. The owners moved to working with fruit during the Great Depression, and the now-exclusive orchard has 132 acres of farmland and more than 7,000 fruit trees. They sell a majority of their produce onsite and send the rest to different Giant and Whole Foods stores in the area. Kingsbury primarily sells apples and peaches, and has cultivated his own variety of peaches, a yellow freestone peach he calls Kingsbury Pride.
Homestead Farm, owned by Ben and Maureen Allnutt, has been in their family since the late- 1700s, before the founding of the United States. The farm originally sold staple crops like wheat before moving on to fruits and vegetables and becoming a pick-your-own farm, according to their son, Ian Allnutt. They sell about a dozen varieties of apples — their biggest crop — ripening at different times all the way until November.
“I suppose people who live and spend most of their time in the city sometimes can forget that just nearby, there’s a lot of farmland and parks and open space,” said Ian Allnutt. “(The tours are) a good reminder for some people that there’s a lot of outdoor stuff, including farms, around any city.”
Even without the concern of developing steady business, county farms are faced every year with the growing effects of climate change. Warmer winters have triggered earlier bloom cycles for the fruit trees. When the weather inevitably enters a cold snap, the blossoms die.
“They had a couple years where they had almost no peaches,” said Freddy Ventura, assistant market manager of Homestead Farm.
The farm had to invest in a wind machine to mitigate spring frost, according to Ventura.
Kingsbury faces the same issue of cold snaps, but because his orchard is fragmented across his land, a wind machine would not be able to cover it all. Instead, he has concentrated his peach, apricot and plum trees — which are more sensitive to spring frost damage — to higher elevations, leaving his more-resilient apple trees in the lower fields.
Kingsbury also has had to get into the business of beekeeping.
“The way the bee population is now, you almost have to have bees when you’re growing fruits and vegetables,” said Kingsbury. “(30 or so years ago), we didn’t; there was just a natural population of bees that took care of business.”
Climate change has presented itself differently for commodity farming, which focuses on soybeans, corn and wheat. These farms accommodate weather conditions by moving their planting cycles around. However, they still face issues of flooding caused by heavy deluge rains.
“Climate change is making things harder,” said Kingsbury. “No question about it…Because I’ve been doing this my whole life, I can really see the difference.”
Kingsbury Pride has been listed as having an approximate harvest date of Aug. 14, but because of the early-bloom cycles, they are expected to begin harvest next week.