Hail Bennett is the sixth generation to farm his family’s land, which has been under the family’s ownership since 1867. Bennett’s father, Jim, planted the first peach trees on 25 acres of the family farm in 1982.
“Before that, it was all turkeys and chickens and grain crops – more of a traditional Delmarva farm, you could say,” explained Bennett. “Then my dad planted the peach trees in ’82 on 20 acres. And, then I was born in ‘87, five years later – which was just about he time the started picking quite a few peaches on the farm – so I was literally born into it from an early age. I like to tell people I picked my first peach about the time I took my first step.”
Now the farm has two orchards, containing a total of 5,000 trees — an older orchard, planted in 1996, and the newer orchard, planted in 2007. They are the second and third generation orchards on the property.
“Peach trees only live to about 15 years old, so this older orchard we have now is nearing the end of its lifespan. And, in another year or two, we’re probably going to be taking it out, because as the trees age they can’t support the weight of the fruit and the branches start to break and productivity decreases to the point of it not really being worth it to keep them around. That’s why we planted this new orchard, to come in and eventually replace the older orchard.”
Bennett noted that the newer orchard sometimes leads to confusion as to the family’s peach capacity.
“Everyone thinks, we have these two orchards, we’re trying to double our production. It’s not that. It’s more of a replacement. With peach trees, it’s three years from when you plant them until you actually pick any fruit on the trees. So you have to think ahead. You can’t wait until you’re out of peaches in your old orchard to plant a new one, because then you go three years with nothing.”
Bennett explained that, with the orchard currently in a “transitional phase,” with one orchard on the way out and one coming in, they’re still able to maintain productivity.
“Between the two, we’re picking a full crop, but in any one orchard it’s only half a crop because the young trees aren’t producing the full amount and the old trees aren’t producing the same amount. We have the same amount of peaches we normally have in a summer, they’re just spread out over twice as many acres.”
There are thousands of different varieties of peaches in existence, and Bennett Orchards raises 23 varieties of peaches, as well as one variety of nectarines and one variety of white peaches.
“Everybody thinks a peach is a peach, and that isn’t true,” Bennett explained. “In order to have peaches from early July to early September, when our season runs, you have to have a series of varieties, one behind the other, and coming in all summer long. Every one has a different date. You don’t want them all to come in early July, and you don’t want them all to come out in August. You want to stagger them so you’re moving from one to the next, to the next, to the next.”
Bennett said one of the most frequently asked questions he gets is how to pick the perfect peach. And those who venture to the orchard to pick their own peaches will see employees there who will show customers how to pick the best peaches. A good start is to look for a background color — color all around the peach.
“A lot of peaches will turn red on the one side that faces the sun earlier and be ripe, but it’s a shame to pick a peach too soon, because it develops the majority of its sugars and flavor on the last few days.
“Large size and color all the way around — a nice yellow or orange background color, even on the back of the peach that isn’t facing the sun,” is what Bennett advised peach pickers to look for. “And then you’ll have a nice red blush. They’ll be firm on the tree when you pick them. They’ll soften two or three days.”
There is a 10-pound minimum purchase for customers who go to the orchards to pick their peaches. But Bennett said that picking peaches is one of the easiest things to do and the average customer only stays at the orchard for about 15 to 20 minutes to pick their 10 pounds or more.
It’s important, though, that visitors to the orchards call immediately before they travel there, to make sure they’re actually open at that time for picking. Bennett said picking conditions change daily and that there is no rhyme or reason to it.
Customers who are visiting the orchard for the first time are given a free container in which to put their peaches. If the customer returns with the container, it will be stamped, and upon returning for a third time with the stamped container, Bennett Orchards will give them a free pound of peaches.
“It’s a great way to get people to recycle their containers and bring them back,” Bennett noted. “The containers are sturdy cardboard boxes. I had a lady come up to the orchard this morning who got her container in 1989. It’s amazing how long people will hold onto them.”
Those who don’t want 10 pounds of peaches all at once can visit one of the many roadside produce stands that carry Bennett peaches. They can also be found at four coastal Delaware farmers’ markets, located in Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island, at which Bennett’s younger brother, Henry, works.
“He goes to those every week and sells our peaches there in July and August, and then he goes to the University of San Diego out in California in the fall through spring,” Bennett explained. “He’s on the marketing side of things, where I’m on the growing side of things with the farm.”
Bennett himself matriculated from Clemson University in South Carolina and earned a degree in horticulture, knowing he wanted to return to his family’s farm.
“I kind of came to the conclusion in high school that I really enjoy the farm and farm work and the peach business. So when I went to school, I kind of had in mind that’s what I wanted to do,” Bennett noted.
“But I also knew I wanted to get away from the farm and get away from the area and do something different for a while. Essentially, the peach business was all I’d ever known,” he said. “I had been to a lot of different places in the country, but I’d never lived anywhere else or worked anywhere else. So I knew I wanted to go out and see something else different, and if I still felt that I wanted to come back – which I did – then I would.
“I feel very lucky to have this business, with the family and the farm,” he added, “to have an opportunity like this given to me. And I’m going to try to make the best of it.”
Bennett plans to expand the “pick your own” peaches to “pick your own” blueberries, as well. Next spring, they will be planting 5,300 blueberry bushes on 8 acres of his family’s farm.
“It’s going to be 2014 before we can pick any blueberries, because they are kind of like peaches – you need three years before you pick any fruit. The first three years, the plant is just growing and getting larger, and it doesn’t start to produce much until its third year. Blueberries fall into June, and then we’ll roll into peaches in July and August. It will be a nice way to kind of extend our window.”
Right now, the orchards are about two-thirds through their season and will slow down by the end of the month.
Running a peach orchard can be strenuous and tiring at times, but Bennett said it’s all worth it to get a taste of one perfect peach.
“People ask if I ever get sick of peaches. I mean, I pick tens of thousands of peaches every year. In some ways, I get sick of picking peaches. I definitely get sick of hot weather,” he admitted. “But going out there on a beautiful morning and picking a perfect peach, filling a basket full of perfect peaches, or seeing a tree loaded with perfect peaches never really gets old to me.
“It kind of amazes me that I still have a passion for it to that degree, that after all these years and all these peaches, that I can still look forward to going out and feeling that. So I feel pretty lucky to have something like that that makes me happy and that I can make a living off doing.”
Added Bennett, “We’re very lucky to have a great customer base that is very loyal, that comes back year after year. And we have a lot of people who never realize how good a peach can be until they come to the orchard and pick one fresh off the tree like that. I tell people every day: It’s like a different fruit. It’s not anything like what you get in a grocery store, shipped here from somewhere else. It’s completely, 100 percent better.”
To check on picking conditions at Bennett Orchards, call (302) 732-3358. For more information, visit www.bennettorchards.com.