Hopkins family has farmed same land since 1867
LEWES, Del. — The Hopkins family has farmed land on Route 9 west of Lewes, Del., for generations, and they’ve taken some unusual steps to improve the farm’s chances of survival for generations to come.
“My great-, great-, great-grandfather, William Hopkins, purchased this land in 1867,” said Walter C. Hopkins Sr., who has farmed the land all his life. The land was passed to William’s son, Woolsey Hopkins, and then to Woolsey’s son, Alden S. Hopkins Sr.
Alden Sr. had two daughters and three sons, Alden Jr., George and William.
In the 1930s, William, who milked his first brindle cow at age 2, separated his dairy farm business from his father’s dairy and created Green Acres Farm along what is now a main artery to Delaware beaches. William had 10 children, including Walter, current head of the operations.
Alden Jr. inherited the original home on the other, quieter side of the 1,000-acre tract. He and George farmed together. George has since retired and lives nearby.
Alden Jr., who was Delaware Secretary of Agriculture in 1979-80, placed his land in farmland preservation before his death in 2009. He had no children. William’s family inherited the land and combined it back into one farm under the family’s corporation.
“A thousand acres sounds like a lot,” Walter said. “For supporting multiple families, it’s not big, unless you have other businesses within your organization.”
There have always been cows on the farm. In Walter’s grandfather’s day, they were Guernseys. The farm switched to Holsteins in the ’70s. They’re now known as “Hopkins Henlopen Holsteins.”
Milked three times a day, 365 days a year, the Holsteins produce more than 17 million pounds of milk per year. The milk is shipped immediately to Land O’ Lakes, a member-owned cooperative, for pasteurization, processing, packaging and distribution.
Walter and his son, Burli, who is chief herdsman, try to keep the milking herd below 600. “Much above that,” Walter said, “our nutrient management plan will not work. We have to keep the number down unless we find another place for effluent, and it’s not available, so we are limited in that regard.”
Land in the surrounding area is sprouting houses and condominiums, not crops.
The total herd numbers between 1,100 and 1,200 head, including the young stock.
The Hopkins have considered robotic milking, but at present, Walter said, they have “a very good Hispanic group that does all milking and feeding. It takes about 13 full-time workers to feed, milk and do field work.
Most of the crops grown on the farm stay there to sustain the dairy herd. The corn and the alfalfa go through the cows. Walter likes to say, “We are refining crops into milk.” They doublecrop a lot of the land with small grains such as triticale and barley, then plant corn, followed by alfalfa.
With crops going to feed the cows, the family was dependent on dairying for an income. While the dairy business may have proved strong in William Hopkins’ day, providing steady income to local farmers and taking the pressure off their reliance on cash crops, the dairy industry recently has been in a decline. It was necessary for Green Acres Farm to diversify for the sake of future generations.
In 2006, at an annual family meeting to take a look at their financial situation and the farm’s future, Walter presented the idea for an on-farm creamery to sell ice cream. Burli explained they had been offered quite a bit of money for part of the land, but they quickly decided they did not want to sell the land and go anywhere else.
“We explored other options so we could continue to operate here,” Burli said. Normally, when a new generation comes along, a dairy farm has to expand to support more people, he said. Expansion was not an option in this case.
So Burli, who has worked on the farm all his life, went off to school in North Carolina to learn how to make ice cream.
Hopkins Farm Creamery opened in 2008. Burli stresses the ice cream is “farm-made,” not “home-made.” Although their raw milk is shipped off the farm for processing, the unflavored ice cream base they use is purchased from Cloverland, which uses their milk, in part, to make the base. All of the flavors are made on-site using uniquely crafted recipes, using the best and freshest ingredients available.
More than 25 flavors are offered, including Cappuncinno Delight, Peanut Butter Ripple, Pretzel Salad and … Cow Pie.
A mobile unit has been added so that ice cream can be provided at a special event such as a home owner association event, wedding or ice cream social.
“We even did a funeral one time,” Burli said. “An older gentleman had 27 grandkids and whenever they came to visit, he would take them to the farm for ice cream. When he passed away, he wanted our trailer at his wake so the kids could have ice cream one more time.”
Burli also is expanding wholesale distribution. There is sufficient production capacity and freezer space to really start branching out, he said, and a freezer van that delivers 100 miles away. Already he sells to about 20 restaurants and to three or four other ice cream shops, as well as the Daily Market.
He considered additional retail locations, but wholesale makes more sense, he said.
Burli’s newest venture for the farm is dairy tours and events. His goal is “to help people gain a better firsthand understanding of how dairy food products are actually produced, and how they get from the farm to supermarket shelves.”
His tours are larger, geared toward schools from elementary to university age and large groups, including birthday parties and other get-togethers. The farm has regularly been open for three days of tours in May by Sussex County schools. Burli is making tours available seven days a week at 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m.
“It’s a very educational tour, based in reality. I had a lady argue last year, ‘This isn’t how a dairy farm is!’ She had been on another tour where they had a couple cows, hand-milked. This is a commercial dairy tour.
“They see the manure composting, fee
ding area and silage. People have no idea. My goal is that anyone who takes our tour will get a realistic idea of where milk and beef comes from. We don’t just make milk; we make beef. When a dairy cow can no longer produce, she is sold for beef.”
As busy as Burli is, now that his father is 71, he has help from middle management — a herd manager and a crop production and nutrition production manager for the dairy. The creamery has four divisions, each with a manager: retail, production, wholesale/marketing and dairy tour and events.
Burli’s second eldest son, Jacob, works side-by-side with “Pop-Pop” and Burli every day. “He shows maturity and innate farming senses beyond his years,” said his Aunt Ingrid.
Burli’s oldest son Michael is graduating from Virginia Tech this year with a degree in ag business and a concentration in dairy.
Burli said he had observed other farms where the next generation takes over and knows how to farm but doesn’t have the business experience to do the financial work required. When Michael decided go for higher education, he was advised that an ag business degree was best for him. Michael is planning to return to the farm this summer after graduation and put his modern education to use as the next farming generation.
Burli’s younger children, Grace and Luke, are working their way through the school years and can be found on the farm every day.
Burli’s mother, Audrey Hopkins, played an integral role in the growth of the dairy during the 1980s and ’90s.
She spent many long days in the farm office, as the calf caretaker and as full homemaker.
Although she passed away in 2006, her feisty spirit and work ethic exists in all three of her children, Amy, Ingrid and Burli. Walter said.
“We worked hard to get them off the farm, now they’re coming back,” Walter said in jest. Walter has remarried. His second wife, Jenny, has two daughters, Lindsay and Cassie, who work off the farm.
His own daughters worked off the farm, too. Amy, the older, still does. She went off to grad school and ended up working on Capitol Hill on the personal staff of then-Governor Tom Carper and then Sen. Bill Roth. More recently, she worked for the Senate Intelligence Committee as a professional staff member.
Currently she is the director of the Virtual Warfare Center and the director of Strategy for Phantom Works within Boeing Defense. In layman’s terms, she explained, “We build and operate a digital twin of the war fighting environment from sea bed to space and work with our partners in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps to allow them the opportunity to practice how they would fight and win in current and future conflicts.”
She also is a single mother with two “sometimes wonderful” children, Mason and Sydney Worsham.
They are ages 12 and 13, which in itself can be a battle.
Amy said she went all over the world, doing everything but ag. “But there’s something about home. I can’t seem to shake the ‘come home’ itch.”
Her way of fitting into the total farm operation is beekeeping, which she began about seven years ago after taking classes through Extension and the University of Maryland. She also got in touch with older beekeepers in the area and watched more closely than she had as a child. She started selling the honey from the farm that first year — just enough to cover expenses.
She started small and has slowly grown to 20 hives, which she can effectively manage and still have time to take the kids to the beach.
Harvest the honey would be impossible without their help, she said. “When they complain, I always remind them that when we’re home on the farm everyone works. They could go help their Uncle Burli or Pop Pop with the cows if they wanted… But then I remind them they can lick the honey off their hands and that’s not the case with cow manure.”
Amy’s home now is in Alexandria, Va., but she splits her time during the season between there and the farm. She said she plans to move back to Delaware after the children graduate from high school.
The story of the middle Hopkins child has been told in The Delmarva Farmer recently. After a career in veterinary medicine, Ingrid Hopkins took on the task of re-purposing her late uncle’s 200-year-old farmhouse and that portion of the Hopkins farm as a unique wedding venue, the Covered Bridge Inn.
Originally she was going to make the house a “bed and breakfast,” but it is reserved now for wedding parties over a weekend.
Ingrid also allows photographers to use the farm as a backdrop during the week, and offers small group tours of the farm.
The first four generations focused on building up the farm to the largest dairy in Delaware. What will be the legacy of the next four generations?
Agritourism may be the saving grace for Green Acres Farm. Amy called it “a gift staring us in the face.”
She hopes the family will diversify enough to continue for at least one more generation, if not two, and let them decide the future.
Burli said, “For my kids, the dairy is certainly an option, but the ice cream and wedding venue have proven there are plenty of other options for this land to support a family by other means. I’m not sure it will continue as commercial dairy. My five-year plan is to downsize the herd to reduce manure and the need for silage. That will allow for crop rotation, perhaps to vegetables, and allow us to continue to tap into the local market.”
He noted the state and county are taking steps to help with infrastructure. Redoing intersections on Route 9, for example. Nearby railroad tracks are being replaced with a bike path that cuts through the farm. If granted an easement, the state could bring the bike path straight to the ice cream shop.
Amy said, “With the advent of ag tourism, we have only scratched the surface. Our kids are going to think of things my brother and sister and I — and our forefathers — could never think of.”