Peaked Mountain Farm celebrates 150 years in the family

Since taking over Peaked Mountain Farm in 2002, Dan and Gail VanWarts have strived to keep the land as natural as possible. The farm is certified organic through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. PHOTO BY JESSICA PIPER

In 1868, Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain was re-elected governor of Maine, the United States celebrated Memorial Day for the first time, and a dozen eggs cost 32 cents. That also happened to be the year that Gail VanWart’s great-grandfather, Franklin Gray, purchased a blueberry farm in Dedham for $1,150.

Plenty has changed over the years, but Peaked Mountain Farm and Native Pollinator Sanctuary — located off Bald Mountain Road about 15 miles northwest of Ellsworth — has been passed down for four generations. The farm officially celebrated 150 years of family ownership this summer.

The century-and-a-half has not passed without hardship. Most recently, Gail and her husband, Dan, lost their farmhouse to a fire in September of 2017. While their home is still being rebuilt, the VanWarts have continued to harvest organic blueberries this summer, which they sell out of their retail shop, the Naked Blueberry, in Bar Harbor.

“The buildings can come and go, but what matters is the land,” Gail said.

Gail VanWart’s great-grandfather, Franklin Gray, purchased the Dedham farm for $1,150 in 1868. She is the fourth generation to farm the land. Photos of her family and the operation through the years are on view at The Naked Blueberry in Bar Harbor.

Since taking over the farm in 2002, the VanWarts have strived to keep the land as natural as possible. Gail’s parents had leased the land to commercial blueberry growers, but the couple opted to grow blueberries themselves instead. They got the farm certified organic through MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and soon began to notice changes in the environment.

“The longer we were organic, the more wildflowers we’d see come back,” Gail explained.

It wasn’t just the wildflowers. Scientists from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension program also identified several native bee species and other pollinators on the farm.

The VanWarts, like most Maine blueberry farmers, had been bringing in honeybees each year to pollinate the blueberry bushes. But honeybees aren’t native to the state — and the couple realized that the species was actually starving out native insects.

Many native insects can pollinate blueberry bushes, and, unlike honeybees, don’t need to be imported each year. Instead, populations are supported simply by maintaining a strong habitat. In 2012, the VanWarts began working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to do just that.

This year, the VanWarts have been hand-picking rather than raking the wild blueberries.

“When you support the environment for your native species, they’re always there,” Gail said. “We stopped fighting with nature and started working with nature.”

In 2017, Gail spotted an empty storefront in downtown Bar Harbor. The couple had been looking for a “high-traffic” area to set up their sales, so they rented the space and founded the Naked Blueberry. The name, Dan’s invention, is a nod to the farm’s all-natural philosophy.

Now in its second year, the shop sells an array of blueberry products, ranging from sparkling blueberry wine to blueberry pie. During harvest season — approximately mid-July to mid-September — the Naked Blueberry is the only retail location for the blueberries grown at Peaked Mountain Farm.

The walls of the shop are decorated with family photos, depicting the several generations that have occupied the farm. Gail is glad she put the images on display, particularly because last fall’s fire destroyed the original versions. Without the store, the images would have been lost for good.

Selling in Bar Harbor gives the VanWarts the change to introduce tourists from out of state to the world of Maine blueberries.

“People come in and don’t realize Maine is famous for blueberries,” Gail said. “I keep being told how New Jersey is the blueberry capital of the world.”

New Jersey, incidentally, is ranked fifth nationally in terms of blueberry production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with Washington, Michigan, Georgia and Oregon topping that list. While Maine doesn’t make those rankings, it differs from the rest because it produces wild, or lowbush, blueberries, as opposed to cultivated ones.

When it comes to wild blueberry production, Maine produces more than any other U.S. state. However, only about 1 percent of the fruit is sold fresh at farm stands or on store shelves — the remaining 99 percent is frozen or canned and ends up as an ingredient in other blueberry products.

Peaked Mountain Farm, therefore, is an anomaly for selling the berries fresh. This summer, as the farm recovers from the fire, the VanWarts have been hand-picking rather than raking the fruit. In an anniversary year, it’s also a throwback to old times.

“We’re picking blueberries by hand this year,” Gail said. “Just like it was many years ago.”

The Naked Blueberry retail store is located at 78 West St. in Bar Harbor. For more info, call 249-5002 or visit www.peakedmountainfarm.biz.