Mar 22, 2013Delaware fruit farm survives by adapting
T.S. Smith & Sons in Bridgeville, Del., is going on 106 years – one of the few surviving apple growers in the state. Seventy-five years ago, there were 92 apple growers in Delaware. Today, there are two.
The farm was established by butcher Thomas Sterling Smith in 1907, when he forgave a customer’s bill and accepted 35 acres instead, which he would use to begin growing apples, strawberries and blackberries. Smith had two sons. Over the ensuing years, he purchased neighboring fields and grew the orchard to more than 300 acres. Smith continually planted fruit trees and eventually branched into asparagus, said his great-grandson, Charlie Smith (C.W. Smith III), who runs the farm today – which has since grown to 800 acres.
“He had the foresight to be very diversified,” Charlie said.
The Smith family can thank 1954’s Hurricane Hazel for their first expansion. When the storm blew most of the apples off their trees, the eldest Smith simply piled them in baskets and sold them from the packing house for 50 cents a bushel. That was the beginning of the farm market. The family continues to sell there today.
The key to the fourth-generation farm’s success, Charlie Smith said, has always been growth adaptation. By the time his father and uncle started working, the farm was growing corn and soybeans. In addition to fruit, the farm added fresh seasonal vegetables over the years, including tender asparagus in the spring, sweet corn and cantaloupes in the summer and pumpkins and squash in the fall.
In 1980, the farm started growing peaches. Charlie followed that with new varieties of apples and nectarines. Sweet corn came at the turn of the century, and paw paw (the next super fruit, according to Charlie) was added last season. T.S. Smith and Sons also offers Delaware’s only hard apple cider, he said.
In 2010, the farm started selling u-pick peaches. Charlie renovated the tin roof and timbers of an old chicken house to build a pavilion out in the fields, which people could rent for u-pick parties and other private events. The farm also hosts four special events throughout the year: Mother’s Day, Customer Appreciation Day, a Holiday Open House and the state’s annual Apple Scrapple Festival.
“We bill ourselves as an active working farm, so if people want to see what this is all about we like to extend the invitation to them,” Charlie said. “We have a rich history here and we offer a real solid glimpse of the past and use sustainable practices in our business.”
The farm is still a family affair. Charlie’s older brother Tom manages the market, and younger brother Matt is the farm manager.
“Matt takes care of sweet corn and field crops, I take care of most of the fruits and take care of the vegetables,” Charlie said. “Tom is in charge of the market, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention we have some wonderful employees who have been with us 30-plus years, some over 50.”
Charlie has two sons, but one is currently going for his master’s degree in music composition and another graduated with a degree in green energy management, and was snapped up by Siemens.
“The opportunity is here if they want it. They worked here as kids and have a strong desire to come back,” Charlie said. “I didn’t make that decision until after college myself, and we’ll have to wait and see.”
Charlie remembers working with his dad (C. Walt Smith Jr.) on the farm, and has fond memories of his time working as a fruit grower.
“Every day I woke up wanting to drive a tractor, and it’s all I ever knew,” he said. “I went to college to study agriculture, and I wanted to help my dad, so I came back in 1978.”
Currently, the family owns about 80 acres of apples and the same amount of peaches, with 5 acres of nectarines.
“We pride ourselves on tree-ripened fruit, because I really believe it’s an impact fruit, and there’s nothing like it when the fruit runs down your chin and on your shirt,” Charlie said. “We’re flatlanders; we don’t have elevation here to help us promote thawing. In September it gets cool, so our apples don’t get the color that our competitors get, but we pride ourselves on the flavor.”
The fruit stays local, too. Some fruit is shipped to a farm-to-school program for lunches, some peaches head to the Felton Fire Department for its annual fundraiser, and some apples go to specialty producers like Back Yard Jellies and Jams and Willey Farms, as well as to produce stands on U.S. 50 and U.S. 404.
“We try to sell everything within 100 miles of our farm,” Charlie said. “We don’t pack and ship like we once did. We’re better suited here to sell our stuff in our region in direct markets as much as we can. We are in a few farmers’ markets, and will be adding to that this year.”
T.S. Smith and Sons is solar powered.
“I put in 176 solar panels to help offset the cost of energy, and we’re also involved in conservation programs,” Charlie said. “It’s important to me to do my part and reduce the footprint a little. We try to do as few pesticides as possible.”
The farm has also teamed with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, examining production and season extension methods for dwarf sweet cherries, figs and day-neutral strawberries.
The farm’s efforts helped it to win the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Family Owned Business of the Year Award for Delaware in 2012.
“It means a lot to us to be recognized,” Charlie said. “There’s gratification for what we do. We work so hard, and I think a lot of times people don’t appreciate farmers.
“Now, they meet me at these farmers’ markets, and I love turning people on to the peaches and apples, and they think meeting the farmer is like meeting a rock star. The awards help our image and will hopefully help our business.”
– Keith Loria