Bennett Orchards offering fruits of sixth generation of farmers

For many locals and visitors, it’s not truly summer at the beach unless they’ve headed out to Bennett Orchards to pick their own peaches straight from the tree.

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: A tractor pulls a load of peach baskets. The Bennett family has been in the peach business since the early 1980s.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark
A tractor pulls a load of peach baskets. The Bennett family has been in the peach business since the early 1980s.

“The peach is one of those fruits where there’s a tremendous amount of difference getting one from the grocery store that has been shipped in from somewhere else and getting one fresh, local, harvested within a day,” said Hail Bennett, who runs the orchard with his family, “or, even better, picked right off the tree. I tell people all the time: it’s a different fruit entirely, the quality is so superior. It doesn’t even compare.”

Bennett Orchards has been supplying the area with peaches since the early 1980s.

“There was an extension agent up in Georgetown that suggested my dad grow peaches,” said Bennett. “The more he thought about it, the more he realized it was a perfect fit. Peaches are a summertime crop, and when do we have more people here than July and August? We have a good climate, good soils, good characteristics all around for peaches.”

Bennett said that, in the 1800s and during the turn of the 20th century, Delaware was the leading producer of peaches in the country — which is the reason Delaware’s state flower is the peach blossom. However, in the early 20th century, there was a peach blight, which wiped out the peach industry in the state.

“All the previous generations before my dad did poultry and grain,” said Bennett. “My dad planted about 2,000 peach trees in 1983, in the field where the blueberries are today. They picked their first big peach crop in 1987, the year I was born. I was literally born into the peach business. I probably picked my first peach about the same time I took my first steps.”

Bennett and his brother Henry are the sixth generation of Bennetts to be on their family’s farm.

“All we ever knew was peaches. I tell people, I’m 26 years old and I have 26 years of experience growing peaches.”

Bennett said that, when he was younger, he wanted to be a meteorologist, but once he got into high school, he realized he wanted to work on the family farm.

“I had worked on the farm my whole life, pretty much. I knew what the business was about. I got the point in high school what a great opportunity I had to come back to the farm and continue this legacy, and step into an already successful business. It’s an opportunity a lot of people would be glad to have. And I thought, if I enjoy it, and hopefully there’s a future in it, I’d be pretty foolish not to try to do it.”

In 2005, Bennett attended Clemson University in South Carolina, where he majored in horticulture.

“I knew I wanted to go away for a few years, do something different, live somewhere else. It’s kind of hard when you only live in one place your entire life, to know whether or not you want to do anything else, because you’ve never really done anything else,” he said. “I kind of told myself when I went down there, if I still feel like I want to come back to the farm four years from now, I will, and if I don’t, then I don’t.

“I still worked on a peach farm,” he noted. “Clemson University actually has a research farm down there where they do research on peach trees.”

The summer before his junior year at Clemson, Bennett interned for a nursery in Delaware that grows apple, peach, cherry, pear and a variety of other fruit trees.

“You have to work somewhere in the horticulture industry, but it can’t be on your own farm, involving what you want to do. There’s a nursery that we get all our peach trees from. Their headquarters are in Pennsylvania, but they grow all of their peaches in Sussex County. They’re in a different field every year. When I was working for them, they were working in a field in Milton.”

That summer, he helped tend to peach trees — some of which were eventually purchased by his family and planted on the farm in 2007.

“They grow a quarter-million and we only ordered 2,000… It’s kind of a neat feeling, because I was with them when they were just coming out of the ground that year and then the next spring they wound up on our farm. I was literally with them from the beginning.”

In 2009, Bennett graduated from Clemson and returned to the family farm, where he immediately started working on the orchard and even added blueberry plants into the mix.
Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: Hail Bennett picks a ripe peach.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark
Hail Bennett picks a ripe peach.

“When I got finished, I really looked forward to coming back to the area and continuing the business more than ever,” he said. “So far, I haven’t regretted the decisions I’ve made. I’m glad to be here.

“Some days on the farm are better than others,” Bennett admitted. “Some days, it tests my mental toughness… But there’s never really a day I dread going to work. I really enjoy what I do. I think for anyone, one of the greatest things you can have in life is a job you enjoy and get to do something you’re passionate about.”

Bennett explained that the farm is now on its third generation of orchards, as peach trees tend to last 15 years, with the first three years for each tree not producing sellable fruit.

“The orchard we have now, it is six years old. This year will be the third big crop it’s produced. In another six years, it’ll be time to plant another orchard, which is hard to believe.”

Now that orchard is in full production, with 18 varieties of peaches, as well as one variety of nectarine and one white peach, from 2,600 trees on 25 acres.

“You can only pick peaches off of any one tree in the orchard for about a week or 10 days,” Bennett explained. “If we only had one variety, we’d only have peaches for about week. The arriving times of the varieties are staggered, with the idea being that we start with the earliest peach variety and keep moving from one to the next one, to the next one, throughout the whole season.”

The Bennett’s “pick your own” is different from many other orchards, as pickers drive right up to the peach stand, which moves around to different locations within the orchard, depending on what trees have the ripest fruit.

“It’s something that my dad came up with over the early ’80s and it has worked really well for us over the years,” he said. “We try to make it so that the peaches are to the point where you can’t pick a bad peach and, where we send you, you won’t have any trouble at all picking good peaches. I like to make it so that when they come up they have a good experience. They don’t have any trouble, they find good fruit, and that they’re happy with what they get.”

There is a 10-pound minimum for pick-your-own peaches at Bennett Orchards, and the farm provides containers. Customers who return with their container to pick again will receive $1 off.

For those who are looking for tasty peaches but who don’t want to spend the time in the sun, Bennett peaches can be purchased at 10 area farmers markets.

Bennett said that, although peaches are only in season in July and August, the farm has to be maintained throughout the year, and, whether it’s raking, pruning or mowing, “there’s always something to be done.”

“The job here and all the work just revolves around the season. There’s always something that needs to be done at different times of the year. I don’t think in my whole lifetime I’ve ever had a summer vacation. With the blueberries now, it’s an extra month of busy time. There’s no typical day. Every day is different, and I like it that way.”

Bennett said that farming isn’t always peachy, as spring freezes and other acts of nature can end up hurting a crop. This year, the cool spring led to later-than-usual ripening for the peaches, pushing back the picking season by several weeks.

“We can lose our whole crop in one cold night in April,” he said. “My parents lost the peach crop in 1989 and 1990. They didn’t pick a single peach for two years straight. It almost put them out of business. My brother and I were really little then and, knock on wood, we haven’t lost an entire crop since then.

“We’ve had some bad years. It’s always within the realm of possibility,” he acknowledged. “Every year we cut it pretty close; we bloom out within a week or so of the last week of the last freeze. When we work so hard and come so far, and to have something like that happen, it’s tough to swallow sometimes. Every peach grower rolls the dice every spring all around the country. It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.”

Bennett said that, although the farm can sustain many more peach trees than it grows now, he doesn’t want to sacrifice quality for quantity.

“It’s not a factory. It’s not like we push a button and a hundred baskets of peaches pop out. We’ve been careful to not grow Bennett Orchards too big. We could grow four to five times the number of peaches, but I wouldn’t have the quality I have now. Every peach that is picked off this farm — and blueberries, too, for that matter — is sold, I would say, within a 30-mile radius of where we are. We’re truly a local niche market,” he said.

“I want to make sure the peaches we’re picking are only peaches that I want to put my name on. If I was a big peach grower, I wouldn’t be so in touch with the consumer. What’s neat about our business is that we’re selling directly to the people who are eating our peaches.”

Bennett said he and his crew will pick as many as 10,000 baskets of peaches in a good year, and during the busy weeks will work seven days a week, from dawn to dusk.

“I try to be right there or nearby when every basket gets picked. I probably pick about a thousand baskets every season,” said Bennett. “When I go out in the orchard or the blueberry field and I see beautiful fruit, it really reminds me of why I’m doing what I do. It makes it all worthwhile.”

Bennett said that the public’s enthusiasm for the orchard reinforces why he loves being a farmer.

“It’s funny — I’m a pretty popular guy in July and August every year… I feel like a two-month celerity,” he said with a laugh. “It’s kind of a funny thing because people are so excited to get the fruit. It really amazed me this year how many people thank me for planting blueberries. It’s a very rewarding feeling to know that all this hard work, effort and energy is being appreciated by people and that people are glad we’re here.

“A peach is something that, if you don’t pick it when it’s supposed to be picked, truly tree-ripened, you’re not going to be happy with it,” he added. “Once you eat a fresh tree-ripened peach, you can never go back to the ones in the grocery store in the middle of winter. It just doesn’t even compare. It’s amazing how happy people are to get fresh fruit. Sometimes, I think, ‘It’s just peaches. You don’t need a peach to survive.’ But people have been really receptive.”

Over the years, the Bennetts have been happily serving the community fresh peaches, and now blueberries. Although they weren’t always sure the orchard would be a success, Bennett said he and his family are grateful for the continued support from their loyal customers.

“My dad said to me, when he planted the peach trees back in the ’80s, they opened up and all these people came out to pick peaches. He said he’d lay in bed at night for a week afterward and wondered if anybody was going to come back and pick more the rest of the summer or was it just a one-time thing,” he recalled.

“We’ve been very, very lucky all these years to have a tremendously loyal customer base of both out-of-town folks and locals alike. We are so grateful we have a wonderful customer base that comes back year after year after year.”

Bennett Orchards is located at 31442 Peach Tree Lane near Frankford. For more information or to get picking times, call (302) 732-3358 or visit Bennett Orchards is also on Facebook.