An inspiring force in Palisades peaches
Rachel Gabel is a longtime agriculture writer and the assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine.
The Gazette, Colorado Springs
When I was writing a children’s book about her, I lovingly referred to Maxine Lungren Clark Allen as the Peach Queen, though not to be confused with the Peach Queen crowned in Palisade annually. On a trip to the Western Slope last week, I learned that the Peach Queen passed away in late 2022. She has been top of mind since hearing that news. I spend a great deal of time listening to the tellers of the most profound and interesting stories in Colorado agriculture and committing their voices to audio recordings so I can keep the flames of the stories down the road. Maxine was one of my favorites. Her story has helped the Colorado Agriculture in the Classroom Program reach thousands of students and draw them into the history of agriculture, in this case, peaches. She was born Ada Maxine Lundgren near Lamar, not far from the Japanese Internment camp known as Amache. She lived there with her family until about 1945 and told me she recalled her mother’s acts of kindness, baking sweet treats – with rationed sugar, mind you – for the internees who helped area farmers harvest sugar beets while so many of the farms’ sons and brothers were fighting in WWII. The Lundgrens moved to a ranch near Ridgway and eventually moved to Palisade in 1949. It was there, Maxine worked in her family’s peach orchard and there she met and married James (Larry) Lawrence Clark. He was a fourth-generation peach grower and she stepped into the larger scale peach business with the style and grace so many said she was known for. Never one to be a wallflower, Maxine was the president of the National Peach Partners in 1979, served on the National Peach Council, and was the first member of the American Agri-women who hailed from the Western Slope. She worked for the Farmers Union and spoke on the national stage about ag labor, which was as important a topic then as it remains today. She told me that she had a large yard that she maintained when she wasn’t working in the family orchard business. One day, she came home to a number of the family’s peach pickers waiting in hopes that she might hem their pants. She had modeled for several years and owned her own clothing business, after all. The pickers stood on a peach crate while Maxine pinned their pants before she returned them, hemmed beautifully, to the pickers. A day or so later, she came home to a full crew working in her yard, all wearing hemmed pants. She told national audiences that migrant workers expected and deserved to be treated with kindness, respect, and dignity. She knew, from her days shoveling sugar beets and her days packing peaches, that without labor, agriculture grinds to a screeching halt. She, and I can only imagine other women in the orchard business and in her beloved Methodist Church, cooked a large meal for the pickers and their families at the conclusion of the peach season. She said she cooked posole and other dishes she thought likely tasted like home to many of the employees who were in a strange land, far from their own homes. After a season of working shoulder to shoulder with peach pickers and packers, it was her pleasure to serve a meal to those who made the industry tick. Maxine knew, even then, that kindness never goes out of style. Maxine and Larry raised three boys and though they divorced after 33 years, Maxine remained a force in the community, serving the agriculture industry however she could. She remarried Larry Allen in 2006 and the couple lived in Palisade until her passing. I was bouncing through peach orchards last week with peach grower, Bruce Talbott. He is an expert in ag labor and the H-2A guest worker program because he lives it daily. He said despite the federal government’s failure to craft an ag labor bill that is better than what came to be 30 years ago, the H-2A program is the best source of dependable labor in an industry that can’t function without it. He told me labor for the packing shed is local and they were able to adequately staff the packing this year. They use H-2A for fieldworkers. A prescribed program, they don’t have labor challenges of significance when using H-2A because they have a huge area to pull from and a group of people who are very incentivized to keep Talbotts happy, and of course, they’re incentivized to keep workers happy. He said it’s a stable, very good quality workforce. Talbott, like many ag employers, welcomes the same workers each harvest for decades, the result, I anticipate, of treating people well. Maxine, I expect, might agree.