PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Beryl Kenney, who turns 93 this September, likes to go to Easton with his wife, Donna, to watch Amish youngsters farming with horses.
“When I was kid, I was just like the Amish,” Kenney said at his home earlier this year. “I used to drive horses when I was 8 years old. I don’t know how I did it. The old horse knew how to do it.”
Kenney is among the generation of farmers who have lived through an evolution in agriculture, technology and the economy. Growing up without electricity and relying on horses, they were still young farmers during the potato’s heyday and the early years of the tractor, mechanization and synthetic pesticides.
Today, from his home on State Road, Kenney has a view of some of the large potato and grains acreage his son-in-law and grandson Richard and Matt Porter manage and a view of land he once farmed on what is now the Skyway Industrial Park, the former Presque Isle Air Force Base.
In 1945, the young Kenney family moved to a 70-acre property near the Presque Isle Army Airfield to grow potatoes and raise chicken eggs. “Beautiful soil, flat land. My father used to say that I had one of the best pieces of land. I could farm the whole thing except three acres of pasture for cows, chickens and pigs.”
The farm, where Northeast Packaging is located today, was “practically part of the base,” Kenney said. “They had the dog patrols, fences and post stations. Then the missile site moved in,” he said. “They took some of my farm then, come back [and] took a piece out of the middle, and eventually they just took the whole thing.”
The Kenneys and a number of other families lost parts or all of their land to the expanding military base by the time the ill-fated Snark missile project came in 1958.
“The engineer told me it was obsolete when they were building it. It went on with government money and everything. Our lawyer worked pretty hard for a week down there in the Bangor courts to get a little more reasonable price for the land,” Kenney recalled. “Maybe it was fair, but if people think they’re poor now, we were poor then. We scraped for every penny, worked day and night to keep it going. It never was really prosperous up here.”
The family moved back to farmland on State Road, then a new gravel road a mile north of the Air Force base and where he still resides today.
“The 1950s and ‘60s were the best years growing potatoes,” Kenney said, before fresh potatoes were “crowded out” by growers in Western states. Along with an egg farm that he and a business partner ended up closing, Kenney also ran a small 10-cow dairy for a short time, selling fresh high-fat cream. “But I got stopped for that because I didn’t have a license. The trouble with the small guy, he’s got to have a permit for everything.”
Later Kenney became a seed potato grower for Agway, as the out-of-state market for Maine seed potatoes grew. “I did great at that until I retired” in 1986 at age 64, he said.
“I kept on helping the boys until I was 84 in the spring and fall. I enjoyed my summers and didn’t do nothing in the winter, just snow sledding, and we went to Florida for 15 winters after I was 70.”
Kenney, who recently received a full hip replacement, now goes on short road trips to see the Amish and watches his son-in-law and grandson as they work nearby.
“I hope they’re making out good.”