PARADISE – The peach trees at Forbidden Fruit Orchard, just a stone’s throw from the confluence of the Clark Fork and Flathead rivers near the tiny town of Paradise, are a spectacular sight this time of year.
Every branch sags heavily, weighed down by dozens of golden-hued, fuzzy orbs that stand out against the deep blue sky. The sizzling weather this summer has produced a bumper crop, probably the best ever, and it’s harvest time at Montana’s only large-scale commercial peach orchard.
Tom and Lynn McCamant of Missoula always dreamed of becoming orchardists, and finally scraped together enough cash and courage to purchase 20 acres of bare ground in 2000, when their two boys, Devin and Conner, were just toddlers.
They were originally focused on planting cherries and apricots, but Tom’s brother Thaddeus suggested that they also try putting a few peach trees in the ground, just to see how they did.
“I told him I ordered 235 peach trees, and he said, ‘I didn’t mean that many,’ " Tom recalled. "But it turns out, if I didn’t do that, we never would have made a go out here."
The experiment went well enough that they had to hire a crew in the summers to help pick fruit. They now have 1,400 peach trees, along with a few nectarines, and they sell them by the hundreds at the Missoula Farmers Market every week in late summer.
“When we first started, we had to explain that they really are peaches and they really are from Montana,” Lynn said. “We joked about having cameras pointed at people's eyes, because you see the fireworks when they try them.”
Growing a tropically inclined fruit in a northern climate isn’t easy, so the McCamants have experimented by ordering saplings of different varieties and playing with various pruning and thinning techniques.
“Actually, the whole thing’s kind of a test plot,” Tom explained of the orchard. “We have 35 varieties of peaches we’ve planted. A year like this, they all produce. In a normal year, they don’t all produce the same and we’re just sorting out what we like and replanting the best ones. There’s clearly a difference.”
The Early Red Haven and the Red Fremonts are ready to be picked right now, and each tree is absolutely loaded.
McCamant says he knows there are people with peach trees scattered all over the state, especially on Flathead Lake, but nobody else has been quite crazy enough to go full bore with an entire orchard.
“They like the heat,” he explained. “What happens lots of times is if we have a cold day like we did yesterday, the peaches that ripen about two weeks after that tend to be missing a little something extra, so we’ll see if that happens. We’ve gotten enough heat that it might not make a difference.”
Picking off the young peaches in the spring is the key to a bountiful harvest and flavorful, big fruit, McCamant explained.
“You have to match crop load with the tree’s ability to produce sugar,” he said. “If you’re lucky, you’ll get a little frost that helps to thin ‘em out so you don’t have to do quite so much work. It was a huge task this year. Huge.”
McCamant has learned to buy crop insurance, however, because not every year is so fortunate. One 20-below night in the winter is all it takes to wipe out a crop.
“We’ve been alternating our worst year and best year since 2010, which was our worst year since we started getting fruit,” he said. “The climate’s changing a little bit. 2011 was the best, and then 2012 was worse than 2010. 2013 was the best ever, and 2014 – it can’t get any worse than it was. And this is gonna be our best year ever.”
Now, McCamant uses giant machines called cold air drains that blow 110,000 cubic feet of air per minute straight up to keep the trees from getting damaged on super cold nights.
“I actually think this year we saved our crop with frost protection during the first half of April,” he said. “We’re going to be busy, I think. There’s a lot of peaches here.”
Montana is famous for many things, but peaches are definitely not on that list. The McCamant family is working hard to change that, at least a little bit. The peaches from Paradise are a hot commodity at the Missoula Farmers Market, but not everyone can believe their eyes at first.
“We’ve had some people accuse us of not being from Montana,” Devin McCamant said, grinning. “Or they tell us they aren’t peaches.”
Jenny Hunt, who has worked at the orchard for a few seasons, was intrigued when she first heard of the McCamants’ operation.
“It’s just an amazing process to see it from the plants growing to selling it to people,” she said. “It’s so funny because we’ll get the occasional person who isn’t from Montana. People from Georgia or California. And you can see the skepticism. And then we give them a taste and they’ll say, ‘Whoa!’ or they’ll come back next week.”
Adam Jones is one of those doubters. The Atlanta native stopped at the Tuesday night market at the north end of Higgins Avenue and just had to see if Forbidden Fruit Orchard could stack up to the Peach State.
“I was a little skeptical,” he admitted, biting into the juicy flesh. “These are really good though.”
Katie Petersen of Missoula hurries down to the market every year to buy a box as soon as she finds out from the McCamants’ email list that the peaches are finally ripe.
“I can’t buy them from the grocery store anymore,” she said. “They just don’t taste the same.”
Although it’s a lot of work, Tom McCamant said he feels good about providing his community with an agricultural product that otherwise would have to come in from thousands of miles away on the bed of a truck.
“When we first started, they didn’t believe us,” he said. “But we’ll take what we can get. It’s serendipity.”
The sweaty August days of picking and packing peaches will be rewarded by a cool dip in the Clark Fork River next to the orchard, where the family can unwind and reflect on their chosen path.
“It’s a good life,” Tom said.