Magee family farm legacy enters a new era


Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: The Magee family has been farming in the area for 150 years. Here, the family poses for a photo on their farm in Williamsville.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark: The Magee family has been farming in the area for 150 years. Here, the family poses for a photo on their farm in Williamsville.At Magee Farms in Williamsville, life is just starting to slow down a bit from the frenetic pace of the spring and summer growing seasons. Things have been so busy, in fact, that Ellen, Danny and Chris Magee hadn’t even realized that their farm has been in the Magee family for 150 years this year.

“We get so busy trying to get a crop in the field and trying to get it out,” Danny Magee said, that the fact that this year marks a rather impressive anniversary had completely escaped their attention.

Holding its own in the midst of the development that has been the hallmark of the area on Route 54 between Fenwick Island and Selbyville is something the family is proud of, whether or not they keep track of how long they’ve been at it.

Danny Magee, who took over operation of the farm soon after he graduated from high school in 1976, echoes a sentiment that no doubt keeps farmers all across the country moving forward in challenging times: “You take care of the land, the land will take care of you.”

The key to success in modern-day farming, where land is at a premium and costs are high, is simple, Danny Magee said. “We have to do more with less” — less land, less water, less fuel.

Modern irrigation technology, as one example, has been a boon to farmers, allowing them to keep crops hydrated with the least amount of water possible, according to Chris Magee, who at 29 is the next generation to continue the family business. “In the last 50 or 60 years, we’ve come a long way,” he said.

The only one of Danny and Ellen Magee’s three sons to currently work the farm, Chris Magee admitted, “It’s not for everybody. You either like doing this, or you don’t.” He clearly does.

“I enjoy farming, even though there’s times when it’s not fun.” He lamented the trend he is seeing on many other area farms, where those in his generation are choosing careers outside of agriculture.

Danny Magee said it saddens him that new residents flocking to buy the homes springing up on former farmlands don’t seem to appreciate the lifestyle and its importance to the economies of not only the community but also the world.

Both he and Chris are attuned to the interconnectedness of the farm with the rest of the world. They see it every day, whether it’s a rainy weekend dampening watermelon and corn sales — because weekend barbecues are canceled — or even a “blip” in the Chinese stock market affecting business on the farm.

But at the end of the day, Chris Magee is doing something he enjoys, with all its challenges. “It’s a science, and it’s a fine art,” he said. Walking along the edge of still-producing fields at the end of September, Chris Magee showed off the thread-thin channels imbedded in vinyl that deliver water to the family’s crops.

Like his son, Danny Magee is a big proponent of adopting technological advances for the good of the farm.

“You can’t sit still in this business,” he said. The ability to efficiently irrigate crops is key to the success of the farm, he added. “If it’s vegetables, we don’t put them in the ground unless we can get water on them,” he said. Today’s technology allows farmers to weather seasons of drought without fear of losing everything.

Compared to the 30-foot irrigation booms of Vernon Magee’s era, today’s can reach 100 feet and farther. Yesterday’s 30-40 horsepower tractors are now 200 horsepower and up. Although one of the old tractors still gets called into service on the farm, equipment is increasingly more modern. GPS technology now allows precision in crop irrigation that Danny’s and Chris’ forefathers couldn’t have imagined.

Although the farm is best known for its pick-your-own strawberries that locals and visitors alike come out for every spring, there is much, much more than that coming out of Magee family fields today.

The family still owns 42 of the original 65-acre parcel, and leases hundreds more throughout the area. According to Chris Magee, strawberries only account for 5 percent of the farm’s income each year.

Sweet corn is the family’s main crop; the farm produces 160,000 crates of corn in what amounts to a five-week season, Danny Magee said. That’s approximately 7.5 million ears of corn. He said his grandfather Fred and even his dad, Vernon, would shake their heads at the thought of production numbers like that, and at the fact that Magee Farms’ produce is now distributed as far away as Nova Scotia and Texas.

“Pop didn’t go more than 10 or 15 miles” from the farm to distribute the fruits of his labor, Danny Magee said.

Initially, the Magees were not farmers, but sawmill operators. The first crops grown on their land were meant to feed the mules that hauled wood for the family’s sawmill, they said. That continued until World War II, when staffing the sawmill became difficult due to the number of local men joining the armed services.

Starting with strawberries, the family would branch out into sweet corn and peppers, Danny Magee said. Over the years, the crops varied somewhat, depending on factors ranging from crop diseases to the whims of the market.

One crop sometimes replaces another with a similar growing season, as pumpkins at Magee Farms gave way to watermelons, due to a number of reasons, including a bout with a pumpkin disease. Watermelons are currently the No. 2 crop produced there, behind sweet corn. Five million pounds of watermelon finds its way each summer from the Magees’ fields to markets that now reach farther than Danny Magee’s father or grandfather ever dreamed.

The Magees currently plant crops on acreage they own or lease from Ocean Pines, Md., to Lewes, including 400 acres in corn, 150 acres in watermelons, 11 acres in strawberries, 10 acres in tomatoes, 10 acres in peppers and, now, 4 acres in the “next big thing,” according to Danny Magee.

What’s the “next big thing” to be produced there in the soil of the Magee farm?

Broccoli.

Mounds of soil that held strawberry plants in the spring now burst forth with lush blue-green leaves and, at their center, velvety green heads of broccoli. The decision to try it is a nod to the vegetable’s increasing popularity, as well as its extended growing season. Danny Magee said the plants should continue to produce until the first freeze.

“That’s first freeze, not first frost,” he emphasized, which could mean another couple of months of production.

So when those signs in the grocery store in the coming weeks say “Local Broccoli,” it’s a pretty good bet that it really is.