by Sally Colby

When Henry Bennett was 16, he started attending farmers markets to sell fruit grown on his family’s Frankford, DE, orchard.  After college, where he majored in international business and Spanish, Henry returned to the farm.

Although Henry’s original plans didn’t include returning to the farm, throughout college, he spent summers on the farm and continued to attend farmers markets. “I started to apply what I learned in college,” he said. “I started to see sales increase more and more. During my junior year, I realized we had a good thing going and worked on making it more profitable and efficient. That made me decide to come back to the farm and continue our legacy.”

Henry’s brother Hail majored in horticulture at Clemson University and returned to the farm with the intent of diversifying the orchard’s offerings. “We decided to expand and grow blueberries and not rely just on peaches,” said Henry. “We’re similar to New Jersey, seven miles from the beach, so we have sandy soil, especially since we’re on the Delmarva.”

Jim Bennett established a 25-acre peach orchard with a selection of varieties. Today, he and his sons Henry and Hail blossom thin and hand thin the orchard’s 60 acres, depending on weather. Photo courtesy of Bennett Orchards

Today, the brothers are operating the orchard started by their father. “My father Jim came back to the farm in 1980,” said Henry. “He didn’t want to raise chickens and grain, which is what was done here traditionally, and decided to grow peaches. I’m 31 and Hail is 34, and we’re the sixth generation on the farm and the second generation to grow fruit. Hail handles the growing and plant science details and I manage the business side.”

Jim Bennett established a 25-acre peach orchard with a selection of varieties. Henry said his father received guidance from University of Delaware Cooperative Extension to select the first varieties he planted, and today, the family continues to work with Delaware as well as Clemson and Rutgers University. “Peaches take a lot of concentration and attention to detail,” said Henry, “unlike a vegetable crop, where you can start over the next season.”

When it’s time to select new peach and nectarine varieties, the Bennetts consult with nurseries and Cooperative Extension. “It’s always a gamble,” said Henry, describing the process of choosing varieties. “We usually plant at least 18 varieties in an orchard, not only to make sure we have a two-month season but to hedge our bets. A lot of the varieties are crosses of something we’ve grown before. We don’t have any cold storage or refrigeration on the farm so it’s critical for us to have 18 different varieties so we have something fresh to pick each week for the markets or U-pick.”

Peach varieties are carefully selected to cover the entire season. The season begins in early July with Sentry, Summer Serenade and GaLa peaches. By mid to late July, customers enjoy Redhaven, Bellaire, Lucky #13®, GloHaven and Blushingstar®. Early August brings Bounty, Loring and GlowingStar®, and in mid-August, customers can choose from Messina®, Fantasia (nectarine) and several Fury varieties. Large EncoreÔ peaches signal the end of the season, but their extended shelf life means customers can enjoy the peach season a bit longer.

Henry said pruning is based on an open center system with some custom touches the family has developed to maximize quality. Early blossoms and frost aren’t a good combination, so the Bennetts rely on the services of a helicopter to move warm air from above the trees to the ground.

“If it’s 37º 40 feet in the air and 25º down below, the helicopter mixes the air to keep the air above the critical 28º mark,” Henry explained. He said helicopter is on site as the brothers monitor temperatures, and is in the air as soon as necessary. Although conditions don’t warrant a helicopter every season, it saves the crop at the most critical time. “We needed it in 2020,” said Henry. “We have a good relationship with the local helicopter that sprays.” He added that when they compared the cost of erecting wind machines versus a helicopter on standby, the helicopter was the more economical choice.

The Bennetts blossom thin and hand thin the orchard’s 60 acres of peaches depending on weather. “It’s always a difficult decision,” said Henry. “We want to blossom thin but the next night might be below freezing and that will thin the crop for us.” A good weather station provides current information about potential changing conditions.

Henry and Hail strive to be as sustainable as possible and pull routine soil tests and leaf (tissue) analysis to stay ahead of nutrition problems. Henry said being in the orchard daily from mid-winter through spring helps with pest detection. He’s found that the main insect pest to watch for is the peach tree borer, but said pheromone disruption helps manage that pest. All orchard blocks have drip irrigation fed by about 15 miles of underground pipe with wells to provide water.

The sandy soil of the Delmarva peninsula is perfect for growing highbush blueberries, so the brothers maintain 10 acres of several varieties. Harvest begins in early to mid June, and although blueberry variety ripening overlaps, customers can contact Bennett Orchards to find out what’s ready.

While the Bennetts concentrate their efforts on peaches and blueberries, they’ll grow an annual crop when necessary. In 2016, the farm experienced a severe frost which resulted in 80% crop loss. “That year we grew specialty melons so we could still go to farmers markets outside of blueberry season,” said Henry. “That was to fill the void.”

Bennett Orchards is present at 11 farmers markets during the growing season, all of which are producer-only markets. “We want to sell what we grow and attend farmers markets where there are other producers,” said Henry. “A lot of people want to try local foods and like going to producer-only farmers markets all along the coast. Since our farm is close to the beach and there’s a lot of summer traffic, having a peach picked that morning then taken to market for someone to enjoy that afternoon is a bonus.”

Henry said some market customers are veterans; others are visiting the area for the first time and stop in for fresh fruit. “I think part of being at farmers markets is to educate the consumer,” he said. “It’s one of the few places they can actually talk with the person who grew the fruit.” Henry and Hail are well aware that people hear buzzwords and know about sprays, and when questioned about their growing practices, they take it as an opportunity to explain the importance of pest management and how they incorporate pheromone disruption and low-spray programs.

In addition to their strong farmers market presence, Bennett Orchards also sells to restaurants and maintains several wholesale accounts. “We have a name for ourselves and a lot of restaurants want Bennett peaches on the menu,” said Henry, adding that they’ve been selling to some restaurants for 20 years. “The pick-your-own is agritourism but we call it an authentic farm experience. People won’t see a petting zoo but they’ll see rows of peaches and can fill a box from just a few trees.”

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