Bennetts go from grist mill to peach orchard

Traveling north on Route 20 in Dagsboro, it’s hard to miss the 2,500 peach trees that line 25 acres on the roadway’s east side. The Bennetts’ peach trees, where locals have picked their own peaches since the mid-80’s — coupled with the Parsons’ produce stand and farm just north — are two symbols of the farming tradition that continues to envelop this area’s back roads.

Coastal Point • JONATHAN STARKEY: Carrie Bennett looks over the family’s orchardCoastal Point • JONATHAN STARKEY
Carrie Bennett looks over the family’s orchard

What might not be as obvious is what sits directly next to Jim and Carrie Bennett’s two-story farmhouse, adjacent to the orchard. Still marked by a Baltimore Mills sign is the grist mill Jim Bennett’s ancestors’ manned, which once sat in the middle of an “early industrial-type area,” along Route 20.

“It really was bustling,” Jim Bennett said, sitting in the kitchen of the farmhouse.

Bennett’s ancestors manned the mill in the late 18th century, making it almost as old as the nation itself.

Centuries later, the Bennetts — like handfuls of other local farming families — continue that farming tradition. For the Bennetts, Jim pointed out last week, growing peaches was a way for the family to advance that tradition while catering to a modern atmosphere in the Delaware coastal area, where many farmers must find a niche to remain profitable.

Like the Magee family’s strawberries, and the Parsons’ watermelons and pumpkins, Bennett peaches — all 19 varieties of them — have become a local summertime tradition. Since 1987, locals have flocked to the Route 20 farm, where corn and other crops still share the land, to pick their own peaches from the middle of July and through the fall.

“It was a perfect fit for the coastal community,” said Jim Bennett, whose ancestors also worked in the poultry industry in the area. “A peach is not something that you can pick and ship and still have a quality product.”

That concept of freshness is precisely what the Bennetts hope will drive and popularize the inaugural Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market. The market will open from 8 a.m. to noon on Sunday in the Mercantile Peninsula Bank parking lot in Bethany and connect back-road growers — whose roots span generations — with townspeople, to revive a connection locally that was centered in the middle of town and lost decades ago.

The market will feature only homegrown crops and run for eight consecutive Sundays beginning this holiday weekend. Carrie Bennett, the liaison for the local farming community, has been a primary force behind the organization of the Bethany market.
Coastal Point • JONATHAN STARKEY: Henry Bennett checks on some peaches in his family’s orchard.Coastal Point • JONATHAN STARKEY
Henry Bennett checks on some peaches in his family’s orchard.

“Once you purchase locally grown food, you’re reluctant to purchase anything else,” she said.

Henry Bennett — who, with his brother Hail, is a sixth-generation Bennett to live in the farmhouse — toured the peach orchard last week, pointing out the 19 different types of peaches and nectarines, and even stopping to check the freshness on some the family hopes are ripe and ready for sale by Sunday.

Henry, a 17-year-old marketing guru whose enthusiasm for the family work is evident, will be the family’s connection to the public at the Bethany market. His older brother is a horticulture major at Clemson University in South Carolina, and has a similar passion for the work.

Henry spoke with enthusiasm about the upcoming introduction of the market that will introduce townspeople to the farming tradition locally, and their fresh crops.

“When you ride into town,” Henry said, “you see the totem poll, the town hall and the farmers’ market. We just have a nice, unique product I feel that I can market.”

With mom Carrie in the back of a farm vehicle and Henry at the wheel last week, weaving between rows of peach trees, the pair explained the essence of the family’s farm that still helps mark the tradition and the local farming industry in the area. It’s a tradition and industry that has not disappeared but only metamorphosed in the last two centuries.

“The tree-ripened fruit is so superior in taste and flavor, that’s what keeps people coming back,” Carrie Bennett said. “That’s the whole concept behind buying locally.”