Grant getting Bennett peachy keen on blueberries

Perhaps best known for his family’s peach business – Bennett Orchards, near Frankford – Hail Bennett, a recent graduate of Clemson University in South Carolina, will be stepping out with a new kind of fruit project in the coming months: blueberries.

Bennett’s is 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. Specialty crops are defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops (including floriculture). His project will allow him to partner with the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension to “develop a highly productive and cost-effective method for establishing blueberries.”

“These grants are given each year to assist Delaware growers with market expansion, as well as the development of new products,” said Delaware Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee in announcing the grant recipients. “The competitiveness of Delaware’s specialty crops will be increased through continuing education, applied research, improved technology and genomic research.”

Bennett and the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension will be looking at different techniques and ideas about blueberry growing, as there hasn’t been much research done in Delaware in the past, said Bennett.

“There is lots of promising research in other areas of the country,” said Bennett, but he added that the research in New Jersey and other states tells them little about soil and growth patterns on the Delmarva Peninsula.

The project will last three years (the time frame of the grant) and will consist of plantings on a large scale (about 5,500 on Bennett’s farm and about 400 at UD). It will include new varieties, and they will be tracking performance, mulch materials and irrigation configuration – “neat stuff” to a young man who has grown up around peaches his whole life.

“It will benefit any would-be blueberry grower,” said Bennett of the data they plan to collect.

At the end of the three years, Bennett will offer his findings in presentations that will be available online and at Delaware Ag Week, which is held each January in Harrington.

Because three years is not quite enough time to actually yield the fruit of the berry, Bennett’s data will consist mostly of “establishment” data, rather than “yield” data, tracking how well the plants got established in the time frame allotted, how well they transplanted from the nursery to the farms, and how well their growth and development was over the years.

Bennett said healthy blueberry plants with good root systems could produce for 40 to 50 years, and he does expect some fruit from the plants later in the spring of 2014. He noted that extensions for the grants are also available if he wants to continue to use his ongoing data once the fruit gets going, for research purposes on the actual “yield” of the fruit.

Eventually, Bennett hopes to market the blueberries to widen the family’s market base from peaches, so any research he collects will aid in that endeavor in the future, as well as being available to aid other would-be blueberry growers.

“I grew up knowing peaches,” explained Bennett. “I got into blueberries because they are a great summer crop and I constantly get asked where people can get them. It will be a good way to widen our marketing base, as peaches are July-August and blueberries are June-July. We’ll start with blueberries and roll right into peaches.”

“Blueberries present a new challenge and opportunity,” he continued. “It definitely works for me to help the university in any way I can, and there are lots of new and exciting things in blueberry science.”

He added that, sometimes, research isn’t always in the best interest of the “yield,” because the research can involve trying things that might not work so well, in addition to trying things that do. But he is eager to learn as much as he can, he said, with the future goal of getting his methods down and sharing the wealth.

“I am excited to work with UD and to learn as much as I can and share it with others,” he said.

The blueberry planting will happen in March of 2011, over about a two-week period.

In March of this past year, Kee announced the 2010 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to fund projects that “solely enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops in Delaware.” The Specialty Crop Block Grant Program was established in the 2008 Farm Bill.

The Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA) established a competitive grant process to award the federal funds totaling $251,741 for the development of projects that will benefit existing specialty crop producers. Grants were given in amounts between $5,000 and $40,000.

DDA was looking for projects that “aim to promote or enhance the production of, and access to, Delaware specialty crops,” and collaboration between non-profit organizations, government entities, for-profit organizations and universities was considered to be ideal.