Spring a new start for Bennett family farm tradition

Hail Bennett — the oldest son of Carrie and Jim Bennett, of Bennett Orchards near Dagsboro — was just 10 years old the last time his family planted peach trees, in 1996. This time, the “constant cycle” of planting and growing came full circle for Hail, as more than half of the trees the Bennetts planted came from a nursery out of Milton where last summer he did a college internship for his education at Clemson University.

Coastal Point • Monica Fleming: Hale Bennett sits in a continuous tree planter and plants trees in the family’s new orchard across the street from the existing orchard. Gerald McCabe uses his tractor to pull the planter during the three-day planting process.Coastal Point • Monica Fleming
Hail Bennett sits in a continuous tree planter and plants trees in the family’s new orchard across the street from the existing orchard. Gerald McCabe uses his tractor to pull the planter during the three-day planting process.

“The last time I did this I was 10 years old. All I knew is that the trees came in a box. But this time, I got to see them from just seedlings about this high,” he said, bending over to put his hand about 10 inches above the ground.

“The internship required the students work with a business other than your family,” said Jim Bennett, smiling. So as not to interrupt has participation in the family’s peach season, Hale picked for his internship a nursery in Adams County, Pa., that actually grows the trees in Milton.

“As a horticulture major, I had to do an internship, and I wanted to be close to home to help with on the farm,” said Hail. “I worked as a worker-manager working on the field and managing crews in Milton. Then they dug them up and took them to Pennsylvania for a dormancy requirement in the winter. They sort and grade them in Pennsylvania and then ship them out from there.”

With a continuous tree planter borrowed from Fifer Orchards in Wyoming, Del., near Dover, and help from Gerald McCabe from Selbyville, who pulled the planter with his tractor, last Thursday, March 20, was to be the last of three days of planting for the 25 acres of new trees across the road from the Bennetts’ present orchard.

“They planted 1,300 the first day,” said Carrie Bennett. “I’m not sure what they did yesterday, but they should be finishing up today.”

According to Jim Bennett, the trees will take about three to five years to grow, being “commercially productive” in about five.

The Bennetts first “you-pick” peach orchard was planted in 1983 and, that time, they “filled in by hand,” said Jim Bennett. This time, the tree planter did most of the work, digging up the dirt and making the way for Hale to drop a tree in the ground every 16 feet from a seat atop the planter. Workers then stomped on the dirt around the tree and held the trees straight until the row was completed.

With the creation of the new orchard that many witnessed from Armory Road, they continued this effort every 16 feet or so across toward the woods and started new rows every 22 feet down.

The obvious field work and markings piqued the interest of many passersby, who often see acres of farmland one day and something very different the next.

“People asked if we were building a new development,” said Jim Bennett, with a laugh, because of the flags staking out the field.

The windy, cool, overcast weather mid-week last week was ideal for planting and now they hope for a good rain, said Carrie Bennett. A hard freeze would be detrimental, but they are hoping they are in the clear and that the first-year roots of the peach trees will be established by April 15 or so.

Twice since the operation began they have lost crops — in 1989 and 1990 — but Carrie Bennett said they bounced back and the community was always there to support them.

“The community is always supportive,” she said. “Even when we had the seasonal crop damage, they were interested and understanding. They really appreciate it and are very farmer-friendly.”

The Bennett Orchards “you-pick” operation began in 1987, and the 25 acres planted this past week makes the third time the family has planted.

They are always looking for new techniques and technology to bring about the best crop. Across the street, they currently use a low-impact “mating disruption” technique so pest reproduction is disrupted. And now they are down to almost zero pest population.

“Fewer pesticides is always the aim,” said Carrie Bennett. “We’re always looking to improve. We live here. This is land that we love. We want our children to farm this land.”

The Bennett land has been farmed for many things over the years, and fruit trees were their way to diversify and to take advantage of the seasonal population in the resort area.

“It was a good merge of farming and tourism,” said Carrie Bennett. Hail and younger brother Henry are sixth-generation farmers. Hail is more interested in the farming side of things, and Henry is more interested in the marketing/sales side — his is the face one might see at an area farmer’s market, like the highly successful Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market that Carrie Bennett helped found and managed in its inaugural season last year.

For a harvest that usually begins in July and goes through August, peach trees are a year-round business for the Bennetts. Besides the obvious upkeep over the summer months, the trees need to be pruned around February of each year and then thinned in May.

“It’s very labor-intensive,” said Carrie Bennett. “Even when we lost the crops, we still had to maintain the trees. And, during the winter, Hail and Jim go to conferences and learn the latest techniques. They are always doing research and we are improving all the time.”

“You have to love it,” she continued. “Farming is like teaching. It’s not a job you can force on anyone. It’s something you just have to love doing.”

The Bennett orchard has 18 different varieties of regular peaches, one variety of white peach and one or two of nectarines. The harvest usually begins in July and runs through August. Small quantities are also available at locally owned grocery stores, produce stands and farmers’ markets throughout the region. They are available the Maryland Shore Fresh Farmers’ Markets in Ocean City and Berlin and the Coastal Delaware Farmer’s Markets in Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach.

The Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market will open for 2008 on Sunday, June 29, and will run for 10 Sundays mornings in the bank parking lot at Garfield Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue. For more information on the Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market, visit http://bbfm.us online. For more information on Bennett Orchards, visit www.bennettorchards.com or call (302) 732-3358.