Delaware dairy family wins with weddings
LEWES, Del. — Can a “destination wedding” business succeed on a working dairy farm? Ingrid Hopkins is out to prove that it can.
Hopkins said she did not intend to become an innkeeper or a wedding designer, and nothing in her life prepared her for opening a B&B until she made the decision to do it.
Daughter of dairyman Walter Hopkins, she had grown up on 1,000 acres of farmland just a few miles from the beach.
The farm has been in the family for generations. The original farm was purchased in 1867 by William Hopkins, whose grandson, Alden Hopkins Sr. started the original dairy. Alden Sr.’s son William separated his dairy business from his father’s and founded Green Acres Farm on Route 9/404, now a busy thoroughfare to the beach.
The original home place later belonged to Alden Hopkins Jr., Ingrid Hopkins’ great-uncle, who was once Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture. Hopkins’ father now owns the property.
Growing up, Hopkins was interested in veterinary nursing and earned a degree in equine science from Delaware Valley College, specializing in racehorses. She worked for 20 years in veterinary medicine before returning to the family farm in 2014.
The farm, the largest dairy farm in Delaware, was then already home to some 575 milking Holsteins and a grain operation as well as a second enterprise, Hopkins Creamery, where ice cream is made and sold on the farm. That operation, which opened in 2008, is run by Ingrid’s brother, Burli, who went to school in North Carolina to learn how to make ice cream.
Their sister, Amy, decided to go into beekeeping and her Hopkins Henlopen Homestead now produces Hopkins Honey which is sold at the creamery and other locations.
The farm is preserved forever as Delaware farmland, and there’s no room to expand. With the dairy industry in a prolonged economic downturn, Ingrid said she looked for a way to preserve her late uncle’s 200-year-old farmhouse in a way that would re-connect that portion of Hopkins Farm with the dairy business.
The historic buildings on “Uncle Junior’s” farm were a mess, Hopkins told an audience at a Women in Ag Conference in Dover last month. In 1985, her great-uncle and his wife, Marilyn, had restored the house, built in 1830 and according to an 1870 census, was once home to at least a dozen people.
Alden Jr. and Marilyn opened it as the Covered Bridge Farm Guesthouse. The name originated from the covered bridge Alden himself built over an irrigation channel.
The couple wanted to provide visitors to the beach area to a nearby retreat where they could enjoy the sights, sounds and even smells of agriculture.
The dairy barn and milk house were built in 1925 and a large block barn with a unique bell-shaped roof was added in 1936. The silo was built in 1938 and a livestock loafing shed was added to the dairy barns in 1960.
In 2015, Ingrid dove into renovating the farmhouse.
“Those renovation shows on HGTV are so misleading!” she said. “I became a business woman in an overwhelmingly ‘male’ community of farmers, construction and renovation contractors, politicians and county officials. I had to find my voice and my confidence in a hurry.”
She put together a business plan and secured the support of her family.
“None of this would be possible without the members of the Hopkins Family,” she said.
Her plan was to re-open the inn as a bed-and-breakfast and use the barn, covered bridge and the rest of the property as a venue for weddings.
With that in mind, she designed four guest rooms suited to the needs of various members of a wedding party. A bedroom downstairs is set up for older guests. Upstairs are three more guest rooms, all with full modern bathrooms. The farmhouse can accommodate 10 guests.
She had the barn cleaned up but kept features such as the stanchions and the open beams and added chandeliers. One of her best investments, she said, was turning the milk house into restrooms.
Starting the business required a lot of research into the hospitality industry, social media and marketing. She invested in reservation software and designed a website, thecoveredbridgeinn.com.
One of Hopkins’ biggest concerns was balancing established routines of day-to-day farming practices with safety and liability concerns for curious and wandering guests, especially when alcohol is added to the mix.
Hopkins said, “2017 was the year of B&B. I hosted a few weddings as a supplement to the inn. It became apparent that weddings were the correct business direction, but the B&B was my foundation, my investment, my research and my family’s faith.
“In 2018, I tried to make it work. I had 28 weddings and B&B turnovers between each.”
She had return customers, but with a wedding every weekend, the one-night turnovers became difficult. She realized that trying to run two separate businesses was not sustainable.
It was difficult to give up operating the B&B. “The farmhouse was my beginning. Everything was hatched from this renovation,” she said.
The family’s reaction, when it came to the concept of “no B&B,” was described as shock, doubt and total lack of understanding. “The decision required big confidence, a budget that could be shared and discussed, and concise points that showed my due diligence,” Ingrid said.
Staying true to the “wedding weekend” combines the two businesses into one unique product. Hopkins now offers a wedding venue that has an inn included. Members of the wedding party may stay at farmhouse or choose to sleep elsewhere.
“It’s up to them how to use it,” she said. “Even the traditional breakfast is not used anymore because of special diets and scheduling hair and make-up appointments.”
The wedding party has exclusive use of the grounds. “I don’t allow anyone else in. I won’t even do wedding tours (for other couples) or photo shoots. They get total privacy, an intimate feeling.”
There is no option not to include the inn, since it is the cornerstone of her business. Including it with the venue is the flavor of the business, she explained. There is no “12-hour barn” or one-day affair.
“The farm as a historic, working dairy is a draw for people,” Ingrid said. “They feel connected to Delaware, its diversity and history. People want to contribute to the succession of family farms and be able to say they were a part of it.”
Irrigation rigs, choppers, tractors, rakes, disks, balers, even the manure pond … every bit of farming can be viewed from the inn.
“For the most part, people love it,” she said.
It also requires cooperation and coordination. “We share a driveway as well as busy seasons. Planting and harvest seasons coincide with the ideal conditions associated with dreamy barn weddings.”
There have been times that her father needs to chop corn, but he’ll stop just long enough for the wedding ceremony, then resume his work.
“It’s all dictated by Mother Nature,” Ingrid said. “Sometimes we have to juggle the two within minutes of each other. The work goes on 24/7/365.”
She gets frequent requests such as, “Could you arrange to have the corn this high for our ceremony?”
Hopkins believes the wedding venue is a sustainable business.
“The barn and wedding industry is growing in Delaware. It is not just a coastal destination anymore. Every new venue is increasing the quality of the barn wedding experience across the region.
“I think this is a very positive direction — not only for how women in ag are viewed and respected, (as women are typically the detail-oriented pioneers for this type of satellite business) but also for the peace of mind knowing that as farming families, we have options,” Ingrid said.
In addition to weddings, she also has instituted a fee for photographers who want to use the property on Monday through Thursday, by appointment only, and she makes it clear it’s not exclusive use. She found she had to control traffic coming onto the farm.
She also offers dairy tours for a fee. Although these are time consuming, she said, “I think it is important to be stewards to our farming industry, and give accurate and articulate information about how milk gets from the cow to the table. When a visitor experiences the suckle of a newborn calf, something magical happens.”
Hopkins summed up her efforts: “Ice cream, weddings, cows, farming and historic structures all complement each other. It is important to note that each of the satellite businesses that have grown from the dairy are stand-alone entities, with complete financial independence, she added.
“The pride that we have for each other, the love of the land, and the correlation to the working dairy are draws that we use as a marketing opportunity.
“As agriculture and family ambassadors, women have played every primary role that leads to innovation and forward progress. We are steadfast, educated, patient and tireless examples to our community and family — equally up to the task of digging into bookkeeping, livestock management and cultivating!”
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