The New Face of Farming

Times change, and so do farms. In the information age, GPS and the Internet are keeping Delaware’s family operations on the cutting edge. Some good ol’ fashioned ice cream doesn’t hurt.

From left: Mike Fennemore and his cousins, Bob, Dave and Curt Fifer, have extended the growing season at Fifer Orchards by installing tunnels in their strawberry fields. Photograph by Jared CastaldiAs a boy, Mike Fennemore remembers his mother working all day at Fifer Orchards before finally going home for dinner. Afterward, she might return to her office behind the family home, where he could see her light on into the night. Today, after leaving Delaware for college and another career, Fennemore is back at Fifer Orchards as part of its fourth generation of farmers. To his surprise, he, too, sometimes find himself in the office late at night.

Forty percent of Delaware’s land area today remains in farms. Many of them have been owned and operated by proud families for several generations. What keeps them going? In their arsenal of survival tactics, local farmers count a long-standing ethic of hard work, dedication and innovation. That means adopting new technology and marketing strategies in order to stay in business. On today’s farm, more happens than raising crops or livestock. To various degrees, farms have become grocery stores, gift retailers and entertainment centers, which makes agritourism as important as agriculture. And you can find it all happening on Facebook.

“The older generation look at us now and say, ‘I don’t know if I would do that,’” says Travis Hastings, a fourth-generation farmer at Lakeside Farms in Milton. “But they did the same thing. It’s just the challenges were different.”

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Lakeside’s main crop is watermelons. It also grows soybeans, wheat and field corn, as well as sweet corn and string beans. Like many farmers, Hastings uses GPS technology to increase efficiency and productivity on his 1,900 acres.

“We go out and map all our fields with computers, and on top of that you can overlay your fields with soil grids,” says Hastings. A GPS system on his tractor “will record exactly what you’ve done as you go along, down to what hybrid of corn. Then you take the card out, put it in your computer, and the soil grid will show exactly right down to the coordinate where that corn is. When harvest comes, you take the card and put it into the combine.”

Though the adoption of GPS technology was slow and sometimes expensive, Lakeside represents the norm for farms of its size, says Chris Cadwallader, a statistician for the Delaware Department of Agriculture. “It has certainly gained momentum within the past five to 10 years. By now I would guess that over 70 percent of farms with 1,000 acres or more are on GPS,” Cadwallader says.

That kind of innovation—and no small degree of risk taking‚ are a way of life in agriculture.

“There’s that stereotype of the farmer that is stuck in his ways. He just wants to do it his way,” says Fennemore, “I think there’s probably something to be said for that to a degree, but farmers are pretty smart businesspeople if they’ve been around for that long. They’ve seen a lot of ebbs and flows in the ag economy, and they’ve seen a lot of things thrown at them.”

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Burli Hopkins enjoys the cream of his crop, so to speak. Hopkins Dairy and Creamery near Lewes has become a destination since it started serving homemade ice cream three years ago. Photograph by Jared CastaldiLike and his cousins Curt, Bobby and David Fifer have all returned to work at Fifer Orchards, which originated in 1919. Now they’re implementing changes and taking risks of their own. In addition to using GPS technology, Fifer has placed high tunnels over its strawberry, raspberry and tomato crops. The shelters—installed at a cost of $30,000 on a little more than an acre—extend the growing season.

By growing more productively and marketing its products in new ways, Fifers Orchards capitalizes on the growing demand for fresh local produce. In addition to its retail markets on the farm in Wyoming and on Highway One in Dewey Beach, Fifer sells at farmer’s markets, which are increasing in number and popularity across the state.

Last year the 15 farmer’s markets in the state generated $1.1 million in sales, according to Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee. “It gives small farmers a great venue to sell their products, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “But the other thing I like about it is that it’s also a statement that agriculture is right in your backyard, though you might not really know it. It connects people to their food.”

About 80 percent of Fifer’s income is generated from the wholesale operation. It sought other outlets by marketing its products to local grocery store chains, whose customers are increasing demand for local produce.

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“These huge grocery chains were getting the message pretty hot and heavy from their customers,” Fennemore says. “They were walking in the door and demanding local produce, and this goes totally against how these grocery chains are set up, because they’re based on mass quantities coming from all over the world and economies of scale. Even the Wal-Marts of the world have changed their operation to seek out as local as they can get. You can take that for what you want. We sell what Wal-Mart considers local pumpkins in Tennessee—and they’re from our farm.”

Pursuing that trend from another angle, Fifer Orchards has reached out to upscale restaurants at the beaches. Diners will find its produce in dishes at The Buttery, Espuma, Stingray and the Back Porch Café, to name a few. Taking it a step further, Fifer partnered with Nage restaurant in Rehoboth last year on its farm-to-table dinner series.

Nage procures local produce from about 20 farmers, according to chef du cuisine Hari Cameron. Cameron, who has a deep respect for the farmers he works with, predicts the trend will grow.

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Ruth Linton is a sixth-generation farmer working on the family’s last six acres at Highland Orchards in North Wilmington. Photograph by Jared Castaldi“When you have farmers who grow things they love and with pride, it always tastes better,” he says. “It’s always a perfect ingredient, and it stands great on its own. It’s strong mantras for a modern chef.”

In addition to enhancing efficiency, technology—albeit of a different sort—is also a new marketing tool. Fifer and Hastings both have Websites and reach out to customers through Twitter. Fifer also uses Facebook. And Hastings has launched a new program with his watermelons. Buy one specially labeled with a coded sticker at a grocery store in the Northeast, enter the code at his Website, then find out the exact date, time and place in the field where the watermelon was harvested.

Kelli Steele, marketing coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture, sees information technology as increasingly important. “I talk to a lot of these farmers and they don’t even want to touch a computer. They don’t own one,” she says. The new generation is “changing the face of farming.”

Hopkins Dairy and Creamery outside of Lewes is a well-established farm, though in recent years it has become known as a destination for its outstanding homemade ice cream. Visitors sit at picnic tables and enjoy their cones while participating in a genuine agricultural experience, unaware that, 10 years ago, the Hopkins family considered selling the property. With development closing in, the family considered moving out west.

Burli Hopkins says the family quickly realized, “People aren’t going anywhere. They’re here. We’re here. We can either learn to live together or leave. My father, grandfather and I sat down 10 years ago and decided we’re staying and farming, and we decided to open the farm to the public and try to be open and friendly.”

The new approach allowed the Hopkins to take advantage of the growing interest in agritourism. This is the third season for Hopkins Farm Creamery.

Hopkins is following the trend of using Facebook to promote his business and is in the process of developing a Website as well, but he attributes the business’ success to a few signs along U.S. 9 and word of mouth about his product.

Creamery visitors might be surprised to learn that the 550 cows on the farm produce 12 million pounds of milk a year, most of which is bottled in New Jersey and marketed as hormone-free milk in stores. “We would flood Lewes Dairy with the amount of milk we produce,” Hopkins jokes.

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Even in the densely populated Wilmington suburbs off Foulk Road, a family farm still thrives. Surrounded by the developments Perth, Pembrey and Penart, which were built on part of the original farmland, sits the retail shop for Highland Orchards. Today it is owned and operated by mother and daughter Elaine and Ruth Linton. Ruth is a sixth-generation farmer on the last six acres.

Ruth’s grandfather sold only what he grew. To appeal to today’s customer, which is accustomed to one-stop shopping, “We’ve had to expand what we grow and carry.” That means you can find out-of-season items, milk, baked goods, juice and specialty items such as olives in the Highland store. “They can get practically their whole food selection here,” Linton says. She also sees an increase in the demand for local produce. “We’ve got a core group of people who support the farm and local produce. They understand that if they don’t, it will be replaced by a housing development.”

One of the common threads between Hastings, Hopkins, the Lintons, the Fifers and Fennemore is that each was encouraged to leave the farm, get an education, and explore their interests and careers. Yet each at different stages acknowledged the importance of family heritage, and each chose to return to the farm.

Kee points to an ongoing challenge. “How do you make farming attractive enough that the next generation is interested in doing it?” he says. “That’s where family history comes in.”

Working on the farm growing up, Hopkins was determined to break away.

“I guess I kind of resented it awhile, and I really wanted to get away from the farm,” he says. Talking to buddies about their aspirations one day during his freshman year of college, “I said I knew what I wanted to do. I guess I had to get away to realize.”

Fennemore and Linton also pursued
different careers before returning to Delaware. For several years after college, Fennemore worked in chemical marketing in Charlottesville, Virginia. After his first son was born, he found himself drawn back to the family business. Linton was a museum curator and operated an art gallery in Colorado. She, too, grew to miss the family business.

Some Delaware farms will start and end with one generation, but they will still carve out a niche in today’s market. Bob and Barbara Russell grow an assortment of herbs, vegetables, micro greens and other specialties exclusively for upscale restaurants at the beach.

After leaving northern Delaware for other careers, Bob and Barbara returned to Sussex County to help run a family-owned marina. They bought a farm and began gardening on the side. In 1985 Bob decided to promote his product to local restaurants.

The Russells farmed in Milton for 18 years, but fled to a new location when nearby development threatened. Now working two acres in Milford Neck, they are enjoying their 26th year.

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Like their parents, many of today’s farmers would like their children to return to the family business, but they also want to see them find their own paths. Linton’s eldest daughter is 23 with a master’s degree in finance. Linton treads lightly on the subject of her joining the family business.

“I talk carefully about it because I don’t want her to feel pressured in the least,” Linton says. “I tell her that it’s a choice if you want to do it rather than an obligation.”

Hastings has a 5-year-old son. “I’m not going to force him,” he says. “If he wants to come back, we’ll have a place for him. Right now he says he’s going to work at Target. It’s his favorite store.”

Fennemore recalls his mother’s strong work ethic. “The amazing part is that she was at every baseball game,” he says. “She always made time.” He fully appreciates that commitment now, and he sees that in the next generation of Fifers.

“I think that’s one of the things I’ve learned about a family business,” he says. “It’s because it is your own. To a degree, you take so much pride and stock in it that you can’t get away from it—which is good and bad. With a family business, it doesn’t matter if it’s Saturday or Sunday or Christmas. You’re always thinking, What can I do better? What can I do to improve? What am I forgetting? It can wear on you, but it’s a challenge, and I enjoy it.” 


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