This summer is the first time that Bennett Orchards is able to share their new blueberry crop with the public.
“We’ve always done peaches, for close to 30 years now. There has been a history in the past of big blueberry farms out at Ryan’s and McCabe’s. We used to have a lot of blueberry plants in the area, and there really weren’t a lot around anymore,” explained Hail Bennett, who runs the orchard with his family.
“I got asked a lot of times in the summer, ‘Where can we get good blueberries around here?’ And I didn’t really have an answer for them. At the time, I was still in college and I wasn’t home all year long to do anything like that. But I had it in the back of my mind.”
Following Bennett’s graduation from Clemson University in 2009, he returned home to the family farm. He then began preparing more than seven acres of fields for a blueberry crop, adding to the family’s established 25 acres of peaches and nectarines, doing such things as lowering the soil’s pH level and raising the organic content.
“They have specific fertilizer requirements,” he explained. “They don’t compete well with weeds. A number of things that make them a lot different than normal crops, so they’re a real challenge to grow in a lot of different ways. They’re hard to grow. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of blueberry farms around here. It’s not a very easy crop to grow. It’s a very long-term investment as far as time and money.”
But Bennett said he felt the effort could be outweighed by the eventual rewards.
“We felt it was an untapped market for local blueberries. I was looking to do something to complement our orchard. I had two choices: I could plant more peach trees or I could do something different. And I decided to go ahead and do something different.”
In 2011 5,640 blueberry plants from nurseries in Oregon and Michigan were planted on the farm near Frankford.
“You have to pull the blossoms off the first two years and let the plant grow more leaves and roots. The fruit takes energy out of the plant, essentially. You take a few blossoms off early and you get a much larger plant after three years, and that pays dividends later on.”
Now in their third year, the plants are ready to yield their first commercial crop.
“It’s exciting to finally have something to show for all this time and work and money and energy,” he said. “We’ve been picking blueberries for about 10 days for the farmers’ markets. So far, we’ve had great sales. People have been very open and receptive of our good product. We can’t pick them fast enough, and we’re going to have to open up and let everybody come in and pick them themselves.”
Bennett said the pick-your-own portion of the farm will be open selectively throughout blueberry season and, just like with their peaches, customers can call each day or check the Bennett Orchards Web site at www.bennettorchards.com to see when they’ll be open. Or if customers would prefer, they can pick up Bennett blueberries, pre-picked, from local farmers’ markets, as the family participates in 10 area markets.
“We’ve had a great reception at the markets,” noted Bennett. “Farmers’ markets are great for people who don’t have the time to pick, who just want a few. Then, if they want a lot, the best thing to do is have them come out and pick them themselves.
“The plants are small this year,” he added. “They’re still young and not anywhere near their full production. We’re just asking people to be patient with us, because everyone who wants to get all the blueberries they can this year may not get all that they want, because we just don’t have enough. As the plants grow larger each year, three or four years from now we’ll be in full production and have plenty of blueberries for everyone.”
Having added blueberries to their repertoire, the Bennetts will now be able to provide local blueberries from mid-June through July, which is around the time their peaches will be ripe for the picking.
“We’re hoping to extend our season,” Bennett noted. “Blueberries and peaches — the two go really well together. We’re excited to have all of our loyal peach customers have some blueberries to pick in June and roll right into peach season in July and August.”
As no one in the Bennett family had experience growing blueberries, they turned to other growers and institutions for guidance.
“I get a lot of information with the folks at the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. There are some great people there that have really helped me along the way. They know a lot. In New Jersey, they grow a lot of blueberries — it’s one of the leading producers in the country. Rutgers University has a great cooperative extension program up there, as well. A lot of top blueberries experts in the country are up there, as well.
But some of Bennett’s expertise came from even farther afield.
“I traveled to Oregon last year with the folks from the nursery where I got my plants and talked to some growers up there,” he noted. “We’ve made a number of trips up to New Jersey to talk to some growers. It’s kind of a combination of stopping by people’s farms and talking to the growers, and you learn the practical side of things. You get all the technical stuff from the extension programs.”
Bennett said he also read as much as he could about the plants. But no matter how much he prepared, they still dealt with unexpected difficulties.
“We’re new to blueberries,” he acknowledged. “I have a lot of experience, and my dad has a lot of experience, in peaches to go on every year. But blueberries are completely new to all of us, so we’re learning as we go. We’ve had a few bumps in the road over the years, but overall I’m pretty happy with how the plants have grown.
“You read all this stuff, you hear about all these things, you talk to all of these people and you think you’ve got it all figured out and you know just what to do,” he continued, “and then you go out there and plant them and you get thrown all these curveballs that you never expected.”
The Bennetts’ blueberries were one of eight Delaware projects that received grant money this year from the USDA AMS Specialty Crop Block Grant Program established in the 2008 Farm Bill.
“That allowed us to look at different varieties and how they perform,” Bennet explained, “look at irrigation formations, mulch materials, because you have to mulch underneath blueberry plants — just a number of different things.
“The idea is that anybody in else in Delaware who wants to grow blueberries has some resources to fall back on. It’s specific to Delaware, establishing blueberries in Delaware. I still feel the blueberries are an untapped market in the state. There’s room for a lot more than just the seven acres we have here.”
Bennett said that blueberries are more time consuming than peaches, as it took a week to harvest 1,500 pounds of blueberries, whereas it would only take about two hours to harvest the same weight in peaches. However, the plants themselves last longer than peach trees.
“What’s neat about blueberries is the plants will live to be about 40 to 50 years old. Peaches, you only get about 15 years out of an orchard, so just about the time you get the trees into the ground, they start growing well and you have some nice crops, it seems like not too long after that they start to go into decline,” he said. “I tell people I’m going to be an old man someday, still picking blueberries.” Bennett is in his mid-20s now.
Bennett said he’s unsure if the orchard will further expand its blueberry operation, as they do not want to diminish their existing quality of produce.
“We’ll just have to see… I’m not closed down to the possibility. My dad’s and my mindset has always been, if you do more than you can handle or more you can keep an eye on, sometimes your quality can suffer.
“I’m not sure I could do a good a job with the quality being what it is now. We try to keep things small and manageable and keep the quality high. That’s been our goal over the years. That’s worked well for us... We have a great niche market here, and we’re trying to stay within that niche and not get too big.”
Bennett Orchards has truly become a family business, as Hail and his brother Henry and their significant others are starting to take over responsibilities from their parents, Jim and Carrie.
“We’re the next generation. My mom and dad are gradually phasing out, and we’re starting to take over,” he said, adding that his fiancée, Ashley Farren, helps out in all aspects of the business, from the markets to the office work. “She’s here doing anything and everything. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.”
Henry Bennett’s girlfriend, Alex Forke, has been living on the Bennett family farm for the last three summers, helping out.
“She’s been a great addition to the family,” Hail Bennett said.
He said his family has been fortunate over the years with the support of the community and luck, when it comes to their peach operation.
“We’ve been lucky over the years. We haven’t lost a crop in a long time. We haven’t lost a complete crop since ’89 and ’90, when my parents lost the crop completely two years in a row. It was devastating and almost put them out of businesses. We’ve been very lucky since.”
Bennett said that, although farming is hard work, it is extremely gratifying, and he is glad to be a part of a family business that brings fresh, locally grown fruit to locals and visitors.
“It’s been really rewarding. I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this place on a year-round basis. Sometimes, in the winter, when it’s 30 degrees out here and I’ve been pruning blueberries for 50 hours a week, I say, ‘Why do I do this?’ But then, when we open up with peaches and blueberries, I come out and see all these happy people with all this beautiful fruit and it makes it all worthwhile for me and reminds me of why I do it. That’s why we all do it.”
Bennett Orchards is located at 31442 Peach Tree Lane, Frankford. For more information or to get picking times, call (302) 732-3358 or visit www.bennettorchards.com. Bennett Orchards is also on Facebook.