In 1961, Roald Dahl toyed with our imaginations as he took young readers on a journey alongside James Henry Trotter, a young English boy who goes on an adventure within the confines of an overgrown peach, accompanied by a cast of equally larger-than-life bugs. Sussex County’s own Bennett family may not be quite there, yet, but the fruits that they have become known for statewide are certainly turning some heads.
“These are the largest peaches I’ve ever seen in our orchards,” noted Hail Bennett, who has been helping carry on his family’s legacy for years.
“I’m not sure of the state record, but we’re not quite there with the world record.”
However, they’re certainly knocking on the door.
In fact, the 11-time record holder for the largest peach – Michigan’s Paul Friday, a private peach breeder – developed the species of peach that is yielding the hefty fruits on the Bennetts’ orchards. Friday broke his own record in 2005, when his Flaming Fury variety of peaches measured 5.5 inches in diameter and weighed in at 30.5 ounces – nearly 2 pounds.
“Thirty years ago,” said Friday, “I was unhappy with the varieties of peaches that were available in southwestern Michigan, so I set out to improve on them.”
His Flaming Fury peaches have not only yielded the largest peaches in the world, but have generated 31 new species of peaches.
“To date,” he added, “I have sold over 2 million Flaming Fury trees all over the country. We have trees in Canada and are just getting into South America, as well.”
The Delaware state record for a peach is a tricky one to pinpoint, noted Bennett, as the late peach harvest doesn’t typically align with the judging time.
“Most of your records for produce and individual crops are taken at state fairs and things like that,” he said. “Those are usually in June and July, and the peaches aren’t as big then as they’re going to get. Right now is the peak season, early to mid-August.”
Almost all the fruit on the Flaming Fury trees (dubbed PF-24, as Paul Friday’s 24th species of peach) in Bennett’s orchard are producing peaches that weigh three-quarters of a pound to a pound. The two largest weighed in at a pound and a quarter, just ounces away from the world record.
“Every few seasons,” said Bennett, “we’ll get a really big peach or two, but we’ve never had anything as consistent as these. It’s the second year we’ve had this particular variety in production, and we actually received the order on accident. We had placed an order for different trees, but we went with these ones when they came in.” And the family is happy that they did.
“They really are amazing,” said Carrie Bennett, Hail Bennett’s mother, who founded Bennett’s Orchard along with her husband, Jim, in 1983. “People don’t believe it until they see it.”
The care and maintenance of the trees is one of the chief contributors to the family’s success, but, as with most things in life, nothing is guaranteed.
“We’ve been very fortunate this year,” said Carrie Bennett. “We didn’t have a late frost like last year, and our underground trickle irrigation system really helps the trees grow. You can control the moisture, whether you have a drought in the summer or if you get too much rain.”
“It’s a gamble every year,” said Hail Bennett. “You are pretty much laying your entire annual income on the line. Peaches start blooming in April, but that’s the danger time. If the temperature gets below 28 degrees, it will wipe them out. You can lose an entire orchard in a matter of hours. Back in 1989 and 1990, we lost our crops, entirely.”
The PF-24’s are much more than a set-them-and-forget-them kind of tree, requiring plenty of attention.
“We were thinning these trees by hand back in May,” he added. “If you think about it, the trees could be pulling in water and nutrients for 200 peaches or for 50. We took off between 80 to 90 percent of the fruit. The more peaches you take away, the bigger the ones that are left are going to be.”
And bigger they are. The Bennetts, recognized in their appearances at many local farmers’ markets, certainly don’t have any trouble selling the porky peaches, but it does affect the number you can fit into a container.
“These peaches are so big, you can only get three or four into a quart,” Hail Bennett said. “Our pickers like them because they can fill their baskets up quicker.”
And just because the oversized fruits are hefty doesn’t mean they sacrifice flavor.
“They’re just as sweet and juicy as the others – sometimes, even more so,” said Hail Bennett. “They aren’t pithy or watery like you might think. People really like them.”
The Bennetts’ peaches will be available at the local farmers markets through the end of the month. Those eager to try them out can stop by the Bethany Beach Farmer’s Market on Sundays, at the corner of Garfield Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue; the Fenwick Island Farmer’s Market on Mondays and Fridays, in the grass lot between PNC Bank and Dairy Queen; and the Farmers Market at Sea Colony, which is headed by Carrie Bennett, each Wednesday in the Sea Colony Marketplace. All the markets run from 8 a.m. until noon at their respective locations.
Bennett’s Orchard also offers the only pick-your-own peaches on Delmarva. To grab some right off the trees, visit the orchard, located on the west side of Armory Road near Dagsboro. But as the season nears its close, be sure to call them at (302) 732-3358 ahead of time for picking availability. For more information about the family’s peaches, visit www.bennettorchards.com.