July-August 2021

The peach guy

With 7,000 fruit trees and his ‘pet’ cows, Gene Kingsbury keeps busy running the Dickerson farm that’s been in his family for five generations

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Gene Kingsbury on his farm in Dickerson. Photo by Breann Fields

Gene Kingsbury’s great-great-grandparents came to the northwest corner of Montgomery County in 1907 and bought the land near the hamlet of Dickerson that he still farms today. Just a few miles away, the county is home to booming, blooming suburbs and more than 1 million residents. But on the 132 acres of Kingsbury’s Orchard, the rhythms of rural life still rule.

There are far more fruit trees here than people—about 7,000 of them—and like his ancestors, Gene works the land every day. Planting, pruning and picking; spraying, sorting and selling. A fair amount of praying is involved as well, to ward off the sudden freezes that can devastate a crop in a matter of minutes if they hit at the wrong time. “It’s that connection with your farm land that keeps you going,” he tells me, “because anybody with a practical mind would sell the place.”

It all seems so timeless, sitting at a picnic table in the warmth of a May afternoon, as a dozen head of cattle—Kingsbury calls them his pets—graze peacefully nearby. But it turns out that a fruit orchard is a dynamic place, with new varieties to plant, new customers to please, new technologies and techniques to try. Just one example: Immigrants from Asia are streaming to the area and now make up about 80% of the orchard’s clientele. So Kingsbury devotes 8 acres to Asian pears and this year planted another 140 trees. He’s also added “donut” peaches, a small, flat fruit that his new neighbors prize for its exceptional sweetness. “We’re trying to accommodate the Asian market for fruit the best we can,” he explains.

Kingsbury’s instructor and inspiration was his great-grandfather, Phil Horine, who first planted peaches in 1932 to provide extra income during the Depression. “I was very lucky to know my great-grandfather very well,” he says. “He lived here on the property in an old log house and I actually had him around until I was almost 14. He was the peach guy, he started all this stuff and it skipped a couple of generations and came to me. I was the next one who caught the bug.”

Gene’s parents ran a dairy operation on the property for more than 50 years, maintaining the orchard as a sideline, which they turned over to their son, another “peach guy,” when he was just a teenager. “I enjoyed the dairy farm too, but the peaches, I guess they smelled better” than the cows, Kingsbury jokes. “You smell better too.”

Gene tended the orchard on nights and weekends as he earned degrees in economics from the University of Maryland and American University and took a job with the Federal Aviation Administration. Then two events altered his trajectory. In 1980, Montgomery County created the agricultural reserve, which shielded 93,000 acres and more than 500 farms from new development. “There’s no way I’d still be farming here today without the ag reserve,” he says. “It’d be too much pressure for development and you couldn’t afford to do what we do on this land.” Many farmers, Kingsbury concedes, “didn’t like the ag reserve because they took a financial hit for sure. But we were happy because we wanted to farm and it helped us keep it in the family.”

Then in 2000, his parents sold off their dairy herd and retired, leaving vast stretches of pasture unused. Soon Gene was filling the land with new trees and looking to expand beyond peaches, which are ripe for only a short period of time. He recalls a work trip to Seattle, where he stopped by the famous Pike Street market. “That’s where I got my first Fuji apple,” he says. The Fuji variety started in Japan, appeals to Asian consumers and ripens late, enabling the orchard’s market stand to stay open through Thanksgiving. “I said, ‘this is the answer to my prayers,’ because I was having trouble starting an apple business here.”

Peaches, however, remain his passion. At one point in the late ’90s, he noticed a mutation growing on one of his trees and liked the taste of the strange new fruit. Starting with just a few small branches, Gene eventually developed Kingsbury Pride, a peach variety now grown on 200 of his trees and sold only by his orchard.

As the orchard expanded, so did the workload, and Kingsbury eventually retired from the government to devote himself full time to fruit-growing. He follows his great-grandfather’s dictum: Prune the trees regularly to let in the sun, and they look like leafy candelabras, with widely spaced limbs branching out from the main trunk. “We’re out here all winter pruning in the cold and the wind every day, seven days a week if it’s not raining,” he says. Spraying the trees with fungicides has to be done when the wind dies down, and “it’s not unusual to be out here until after midnight.”

About a quarter of Kingsbury’s crop is available through local supermarkets, especially Giant stores. The rest is sold directly on the farm, and once peach season starts in early July, as many as 300 cars will come through on a weekend day. He allows families to feed damaged apples to his “pet” cows and an aged donkey named Jack who protects the herd against coyotes. But he’s so attached to his trees that he won’t permit customers to pick their own fruit. “You have to know which ones to take off each time if they’re going to have the right flavor and stuff,” he says. “If they’re not supervised, this is a mess. And they want to climb the peach trees. I would just be too stressed out.”

Now 67, Kingsbury has no children, nor does his sister, who lives next door and helps run the market stand. After five generations and 114 years, it’s not clear what will happen to this land. It needs another “peach guy” to carry on the legacy.

Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book, about his late wife, Cokie, will be out in November. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.