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A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer

Bennett bucks heritage to hit it big with peaches

by | Jan 16, 2016

FRANKFORD, Del. — Jim Bennett is the fifth generation in his family to make a living off the land that has been in the family since the Civil War.
Thirty-five years ago, after working five years as a hydrographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bennett wanted a career change and brought his wife, Carrie, back to Delaware.
He had 50 acres of land and some old equipment with which he raised field crops for a few years, but he did not foresee much profit in grain farming.
His grandfather had had a cannery and his father had been in the poultry business but neither of those ventures appealed to him.
Bennett turned to Delaware Cooperative Extension for alternatives.
Derby Walker, who had grown up on a peach farm, suggested peaches would do well in the farm’s soil and would ripen while the local beaches were full of people to buy them.
The couple did their homework first, Walker said.
They knew nothing about the peach business, and he warned that if they made a mistake the first year, they would live with it for the next 20 to 25 years.
In January, Walker introduced the couple and their sons and daughter-in-law as the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association of Delaware’s Farm Family of the Year, saying “Jim accuses me of getting him trapped in the fruit business.” He added, “He listened!”
The first peaches were planted in 1983, with great attention to detail. The first big crop year was 1987, the year their first son Hail was born.
Jim and Carrie invited the public to pick their own peaches, which was a novel idea at the time.
A portable, user-friendly fruit stand was located near the street in season.
Customers picked up a wagon there, went to the orchard to fill it with ripe peaches, pulled it back to the stand and paid for their harvest. To ensure their customers would find ripe peaches, the Bennetts did the first and second pickings themselves. When customers walked into the orchard, they could smell the ripening fruit.
“When you bite into their peaches, the flavorful juice runs down your chin,” Walker said.
Hail, who studied horticulture at Clemson, picks up the story from there. He is now the grower and takes care of the pick-your-own operation. His brother, Henry, who studied marketing and Spanish at the University of San Diego, takes care of marketing, supplying a dozen farm markets from Lewes, Del., to Berlin, Md.
Henry’s marketing skills were developed at an early age. When he was around 10, he discovered a peach cobbler mix and he started his own little business selling it to the customers when they came to check out.
The boys practically grew up in the peach orchard, Hail said, so it was natural for their parents to turn the business over to the sixth generation.
“This is our niche,” Hail said, “to have fresh, local, high quality fruit. If you keep the customers happy, they’ll keep coming back.” The tree-ripened peaches are “like a different fruit, something you’ve never tasted,” he said he tells customers.
All of the crop is sold within 50 miles of the farm with the peaches are sold as pick-your-own, Hail said.
A quarter goes to farmers’ markets, and the balance goes to local farm stands or grocery stores.
Some of those vendors have been buying peaches from the Bennetts since the 1980s.
The peaches are harvested at a point that they are so ripe they’re about to fall off the tree, Hail said. “They are very delicate at that point. We have no cold storage on the farm, so we pick in the morning and deliver that afternoon. We don’t hold them any longer than we have to.”
Getting the peaches to that point is up to Mother Nature, who hasn’t always been kind.
“The big problem is mainly in the spring. Peaches blossom about the time of the last freeze in April. Once they open up, temperatures below 28 kills them. There are no more blossoms. That’s it. You can lose an entire year’s income overnight.
“That happened in 1989 and again in 1990,” he said. “In 1990, Dad got one peach off 2,500 trees. The following summer, he got 100 baskets.
Hail said last year they got a great peach crop, “but you never know what you’ve got until they’re picked and sold.”
This year after a warm March followed by a cold blast in early-April with temperatures in the orchard in the low 20s for six hours, Hail said they’re probably facing a near complete crop loss again this year.
“We’ve prepared ourselves for something like this,” he said matter of factly days after the freeze. “We certainly don’t want for it to happen but we’ll make it through.”
Fortunately, Hail said the blueberries which were planted on the farm a few years ago survived the freeze and they’ll focus their pick-your-own marketing toward that crop.
When Hail returned to the farm after college, he had the idea of planting blueberries.
“People were asking where they could get them or pick them, and we had no answer. Blueberries are perfect to fill the window of time before the peaches are ripe,” he said.
Blueberries ripen three weeks before the peaches. “They’re a great crop for June when we have nothing else to sell,” he continued. Blueberry harvest usually starts June 10 and continues to July 20.
The biggest berries, ‘Blue Crop,’ peak the week of July 4. “There’s no time in the summer when there are more people here,” Hail said.
Again, the family paid attention to detail. It took two years to lower the pH of the soil and increase the organic matter content. After planting, it was two more years before there were blueberries to pick, Hail said.
“Blueberries are a perennial crop. You can’t just plow them under and start fresh next year,” he said. “If you make a mistake or there’s a natural disaster, it has long-lasting implications for years to come.”
Two years ago, Hail brought his wife, Ashley, to live in the farm house. She helps with the pick-your-own and manages employees. On rainy days or when there’s no work to be done, she substitutes in local schools.
But there are always things to do, Hail said, whether working on equipment, maintaining buildings or caring for peach trees and blueberry bushes. “It’s a very hectic time in summer, but I like it that way. It’s not all the same year round. I can go at my own pace in fall and winter.”
Hail said he does not want to expand, or add more crops such as strawberries or apples. “It’s hard to be an expert on all these fruit crops. I have about all I can handle right now without hiring extra people. I couldn’t keep tabs on things the way I want if we expanded. I want to be a grower, not a businessman spending all my time in the office.”
“It’s a roll of the dice,” he added. “There are great years and there are disastrous years. That’s the way it goes.”

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