Young farmers help grow family traditions

For generations, local farm families have been staples throughout the area’s agricultural community, providing residents and visitors alike with some of the freshest products and produce in the region. While names such as Johnson, Parsons, Bennett, Megee and Hudson have served as mainstays of Sussex County’s farming scene for centuries, it’s the younger generations who will be carrying on the tradition for years to come.

Coastal Point • Jesse Pryor: Young farmers from some of the area’s biggest names in agriculture are stepping up and making sure their products are here to stay.Coastal Point • Jesse Pryor
Young farmers from some of the area’s biggest names in agriculture are stepping up and making sure their products are here to stay.

“You really grow up with it,” said Paul Parsons, whose family has been farming in Sussex County for five generations. “It’s really all you’ve ever known.”

Carrying on the family’s legacy seems to be second nature to many of the up-and-coming farmers.

“It gives the older growers a lot of hope to see the next generation willing to adapt the farming to meet today’s trends,” said Carrie Bennett, who helps her family’s peach business thrive. Both her sons, Henry and Hail, have proven to be an essential part of the family farm.

“When young growers show an interest and a willingness to learn updated farming techniques,” she added, “it ensures the rest of us that farmers can adapt and evolve and will be here for years to come. We’re no short timers here. We’re in it for the long haul. Farming is all about peaks and valleys. We had a hard freeze this spring, and it took a lot of our crop. We’re trying to survive by bringing the crop we do have to the farmers’ markets.”

“Agriculture is changing every day,” noted Chris Magee, whose family’s farm — which started in 1865 — has become well-known for their fresh berries and other produce. “You went from horse-drawn plows, and now we have $100,000 tractors. You just adapt with it.”

The young farmers have been instrumental, helping position their families’ goods at the summer markets, providing exposure for what they produce to visitors and local residents.

“If you asked someone five years ago if they were going to the farmers’ market, they’d say ‘What’s that?’” Magee added. “Our families have pulled together and said, ‘We need one central place to sell our produce.’ Paul [Parsons] has a produce stand, but you’d have to drive 10 miles from the beach to find it.”

Henry Clay Johnson V has been assisting with the market for his family’s produce, as well.

“We’ve been [farming] for seven generations,” he said. “We’re carrying on the tradition.”

For 15-year-old Lee Foster, it’s sometimes about finding something new and going with it. While his family’s creamery in Easton, Md., has brought one-of-a-kind cheeses to the farmers’ markets since their inception, it’s his fascination with poultry and egg farming that’s helping get out his own name in the local farm scene.

“I’ve always like chickens,” he said, “and my father had them before but didn’t have the market for them, and now I do. It was tough getting used to, but I’m learning as I go along.”

Foster has been raising heritage breeds of chickens on his own, and the eggs that he’s been bringing to the Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market have been a huge success.

“I sold out [of eggs] in first hour and half,” he said. “They’re rare breeds, and you can’t really find them anywhere else around here.” The eggs, usually less than a week-old, come straight from the grass-fed chickens, making them rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, a crucial vitamin in a healthy diet.

“Chickens that are grain-fed at big industries and producers,” he explained, “don’t have that Omega-3. The pasteurization comes in to really help the egg. It’s a healthier egg and healthier chickens, too.”

Through the farmers markets, more and more local growers and farmers are getting their name out and helping the family’s industry.

“Farmers’ markets,” Carrie Bennett added, “require specialty crops grown with care and precision. They offer a place for farmers to deal and have a fair price for their product. It works for the customers and farmers alike.”

“As far as my role in the business,” added her son Henry, “I’ve learned, nowadays in agriculture, it’s almost as much about selling as it is marketing your product. The market has been excellent for us. It lets us get the word out and reach tons of people. Here, we can get to the people who are visiting, to help them realize Delaware is really big in agriculture. A lot of people haven’t been 8 miles inland and don’t realize what’s out there.”