Parsons enjoys boost from other Delaware farms for orchard
DAGSBORO, Del. — Since assuming the management of his family’s farm, 36-year-old Paul Parsons has tried to diversify the operation to ensure its survival in the region’s shifting agricultural economy.
His most recent venture: peach and apple orchards planted two years ago and managed by his younger brother, Andy.
The orchards are a testament to a bond between the region’s farmers — even among competitors, Parsons said. When he decided to move into tree fruit, he received help from two well-known, local fruit growers: Fifer Orchards in Camden-Wyoming and T.S. Smith & Sons in Bridgeville.
“Farmers have got to stick together, and that’s what we try to do,” Parsons said.
Bobby Fifer at Fifer Orchards lent Paul his tree planter. (Fifer suspects he may be the only fruit grower on the peninsula large enough to justify owning one.) Charlie Smith offered several hours of advice while Parsons planted, including how far apart to space the trees.
“It’s better for business to make partners than to have enemies or competitors,” Smith said. “Fifer helped me quite a bit when I went into the peach business in the 1980s. … I’m just paying it forward.”
Parsons planted about 8 acres of freestone peach trees and an acre of high-density apple trees. The new crops joined an ever-changing roster of fruits and vegetables that complement the farm’s growing retail and agritourism operation. Much of the farm’s produce is sold on u-pick fields or at the farm’s 11-year-old retail store on Armory Road, a short distance from some of the peninsula’s top beach towns. His wife, Brittany, oversees many aspects of the farm’s retail side. The store is a convenient outlet for the farm’s produce, and it’s a more stable market than the wholesalers Parsons used to sell to.
Parsons and his brother have had to educate themselves on fruit pests and diseases, using fellow farmers and seminars for sources of advice. Accurately anticipating the cost of a fruit operation was one of the biggest challenges, he said.
“It’s always more money, in my opinion,” he said. “It takes a little bit longer to prune them. You have a storm come by, and it rattles your trees around. Well, now we got to go in the field and (straighten) each tree.”
Fire blight, in particular, has challenged the peach trees, he said. It’s a potentially fatal disease that can wilt branches and blacken leaves. Infected branches are pruned, he said, but pruners must be sanitized after each tree to prevent the disease from spreading. Experienced farmers probably have a better sense of when to spray to prevent blight, and he said he expects the farm will improve how they deal with that.
The apple trees also had to be hand-thinned the first year to prevent fruit-bearing branches from snapping off the immature trees. Parsons grows Honeycrisp, Pink Lady and Gala varieties. They’ve also been working to develop good root growth. A drip irrigation system feeds the orchards with two lines for each tree.
Parsons is in the second harvest year for apples and the first for peaches.
Crows have been a problem before harvest, Parsons said. They can snap tree branches and knock fruit to the ground. They tried firing air guns to scare them off, but they grew used to the sound. Instead, they’ve posted fake owls on the fields, which seems to help, Parsons said.
Parsons is also helping to keep the legacy of peach growing alive in Delaware. Peaches were a top crop in Delaware in the 1800s until a mysterious disease called “peach yellows” decimated the industry in the 1890s. The state’s total number of peach trees plummeted from 2.4 million in 1900 to just 300,000 two decades later.
“It’s just a shadow of what it used to be,” Fifer said.
Fifer said he was happy to help Parsons expand his business. His planter often sits in a shed unused for years at a time.
“We don’t loan it out to a lot of people. People don’t ask,” he said.
Without Fifer and Smith’s help, the planting process would have taken a lot longer than just two days, Parsons said. He sees paying it forward as a responsibility of the farmer.
“We’re all a family, and we all struggle with the same thing,” he said. “I don’t want somebody to make the same mistakes I made.”
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