On September 28, 2019 the class took a field trip to Fifer Orchards at the very beginning of the farms Fall Fest‘commemorating it’s 100th year. This trip would commence very differently than the last one, with the majority of the tour spent on the bus. We would ride around to various fields before visiting the sorting and packing area, taking our obligatory class picture, and finally checking out the farm’s country store.
Our host, Mr. ‘Bobby’ FIFER met us in the parking lot before climbing aboard the bus. He began the tour by giving the class a cit of backstory on himself and the farm. Mr. FIFER was a Virginia Tech graduate who continued to work at the farm after college with his two other brothers and cousin for the past 15 years. Together they encompass the fourth generation of the families now 3000acre farm. Mr. FIFER stated the family once owned more land after they moved from Rehoboth to Dover in 1904 after the drowning of a child, but those Milford and Magnolia parcels were either sold or lost to time. The third generation, made up of Mr. FIFER’s father, now in his 80’s, and Mr. FIFER’s Aunt remain active with the help of two or three female staff members working in public relations. Every family member has their own role to fill n the farm and no one is vying for the other’s job.
Mr. FIFER notes that each family member does what he or she is best-suited for and comfortable with. Mr. FIFER really enjoys working amongst the people and being at the front of the farms public brand. His brother, Mr. Kirk FIFER, worked for Sargenta right out of college in the 1990s, so he handles a lot of the sales- ‘whether a consumer wants 10 or 10, 000 case of product’, as well as wholesale to Walmart. Mr. Michael FIFER, the cousin, handles the public relations angle of the business, handling retail in Dewey Beach and Dover, booking entertainment, and coordinating ‘Fall Fest’. Another, older brother, prefers to work behind-the-scenes, out int he fields, in a harvester, or just doing maintenance.
No matter the role, there is always plenty for any one member to do because Fifer’s is a very diversified farm. At the start of the growing season, they are packing fruit, off-season asparagus (a fern and early spring crop that stores energy in it’s roots), and one of their most profitable crops per acre, tomatoes. Strawberries often complete for the most profitable crop per acre, but overall, corn and pumpkins generate the most money. Surprisingly, the tree fruit for which the orchard is known, has the lowest profit per acre, because Delaware’s warmer temperatures and humidity is not really conducive to growing the best peaches or apples. Peaches are prone to get stink bugs, scab, brown bacteria, leaf rot, and scale, with apples fairing a little better, subject to fire bight, wart, black rot, as well as scab, scale, and nutrition deficiency. Both crops are subject to daily pest struggles and require different pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides to stay viable. The harvest season runs from April to December, and also includes kale, broccoli, cauliflower, beans(in rotation with corn), and sweet potatoes. Most of the crops are sold locally, though the corn may be shipped as far a s New Mexico, Walston (PA?), Miami, Mississippi, and Colorado.
The high temperatures and humidity create the constant threat of disease, making it very difficult to grow anything organically in this state, so Fifer’s is not an organic farm. Mr. FIFER says it’s not worth the ‘headache’ to try and it’s too time-consuming.
Despite the high level of Inputs required for conventional production, Fifer’s has a reliable way to manage their equally high levels of output. They farm utilizes mechanical harvesting for it’s sweet potatoes and corn, along with other harvesters and mowers. Other crops that require hand labor is often supplied by immigrants through the H2A Program, which supplies guest workers on Federal visas to harvest and pack produce. The Fifer’s must pay for the workers living expenses, providing housing, laundry, rides to Walmart and work, as well as $1, 400 per month for the employees to go to an from Mexico from September 1 to November 1. It’s is a great expense, but Mr. FIFER asserts that working through the government program means they only need about 70 people versus the 100 domestic workers they once hired, even as the farm has grown and expanded.
To facilitate this growth, Fifer’s has employed a variety of different growing methods, such as double cropping, or growing 2 crops in one year, cover cropping, and reduced tillage. They have also employed the use of ‘protected agriculture’, implementing hi-tunnels with measurable success. Mr. FIFER stated that the practice is easier in New York and Vermont, but in New Jersey, E. PA, and further southward it’s ‘impossible’. Hi-tunnels were utilized to extend the growing season and sell on the ”shoulder season’. Cultivars like strawberries and raspberries were grow first, but tomatoes were the ones that proved most lucrative. The Fifer’s could produce 2-3× the yield in tomatoes when no other local farm has them well into the month of December- but from November into December consumers are often thinking of squash and kale and other ‘fall foods.’ Hi- tunnels are most cost effective than a greenhouse for the Fifer’s as their expense is based on length- they only cost $10, 000-$40/50, 000 per acre. They are a big deal in other states like PA, Maryland, & Virginia. The only caveat is the tunnel cultivar must be rotated and the physical structure moved, or the land it sits on must be fumigated, i.e., the soil must be injected with chemicals to kill and sterilize it of everything- which is an added cost.
Additional growing methods like raised beds and bed covers are used for weed and pest management, as well as on-farm experiments. Raised beds can prevent the wetting of leaves, which promotes bacterial growth. Mr. FIFER spoke of his efforts using plastic bedcovers, namely with strawberries, to keep the soil warm and prohibit weed growth as well. Mr. FIFER said he intended to try alternating between black and white plastic on different rows to stagger the crops soil heat absorption by a few degrees and extend the harvest season with equally ripe berries. The bedcovers, used in tandem with 0.9-1.2oz. re-used row-covers, can be used to retain heat and trick the plants into, ‘thinking they’re in NC’- Delaware strawberries are planted the 1st-3rd week of September, but NC strawberries are planted well into October, with a harvest by the end of April or early May.
To maintain soil health, the Fifer’s plant oats, whose roots grow up to 1ft. long and absorb and excess nutrients and prevent soil erosion. They may also plant, ‘Tillage Radishes’ that aerate the soil by breaking up the hardpan and create mulch to increase the soil’s organic matter. The Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation Service(ASCS) will pay farmers for planting cover crops, which is particularly important for sandy soil.
One off the most important aspects of farming that Mr. FIFER covers, was the orchards extensive use of different irrigation techniques. Citing Mr. James ADKINS and his expertise on irrigation, Mr. FIFER stated the farm uses 600-12–gal per min wells to power their system of Drip Irrigation, Underground Drip Irrigation, Linear and Center Pivot Irrigation, and Hard-Hose Irrigation. Drip irrigation was displayed on the surface of the peach orchard and used because the farmers experience less of a problem from rodents, groundhogs, and foxes gnawing the lines than they would with an underground system. To run the drip irrigation, the water source must be free of iron and scale, or the hoes nozzles will become plugged, so clarification and filtering are used. With the linear and center pivot irrigation, seen in a field of Kohlrabi, cauliflower, and collards, the system works with automatic pressure release valves and is positioned on plastic wheels that, while more costly, don’t go flat and bolt onto the hub. The hard-hose irrigation system must be hooked to a well, unspooled with a tractor for 200ft and then dragged and relocated, unhooked, and re-hooked to different hydrants along tramlines.
Another aspect, pest management, was covered throughout the tour. One method discussed was airblast and airplane spraying, which requires highly trained trick flyers who can maneuver at low altitudes and often train more than commercial pilots. Aerial spraying can be used to manage weeds, but vigilance by those who work in the fields is needed as well. Prof. ISAACS showed us a ‘Velvet Leaf’ or ‘Elephant Ear’, an example of a weed that when not handled properly and treated quickly, can result in a long-lasting problem- the plant contains large seed pods with up to 50 seeds that can go dormant for up to 50 years. Another method was a deer management strategy in which the Fifer’s allow a set group of hunters to come in and kill deer for free at no liability to them under the State Quality Deer Management Program. Mr. FIFER stated the greatest pest statewide would undoubtedly be the four-legged, white-tail deer- a herd can eat 30 acres of soybeans and 20acres of strawberries.
Additional challenges would be the paperwork and documentation that goes into processing. Every product must be labelled with a GN and LOT# for distribution. The Fifer’s must pay $10, 000 for an audit, flying an inspector in from Idaho. There are also additional expenses that must be covered for any new or changing government regulations- Mr. FIFIER stated that the family would often look for loopholes to avoid the intense scrutiny increasing regulations can bring. Also, without a properly established market for their cultivars, like the Kohlrabi, the plants are just wasted space and must be tilled under to make way for a different crop next season.
One topic that has seemingly become the subject of every class discussion at some point is the sighting and eventual spread of the Spotted Lantern Fly. Mr. FIFER said that although the invasive insect had found it’s way to Sussex County from Pennsylvania, they had yet to see the pest on their property, but as Prof. ISAACS reminded us, according to the rules of the Department of Agriculture it is up to the farmer to treat any known threats.
Overall, I enjoyed the trip. I would definitely like to come back to Fifer’s for the events as well as the interesting foods in the store that I didn’t get to try or purchase. I was told there was boar, bear, and alligator jerky, and I saw a large selection of jams and jellies with inventive flavors I’d love to sample, but would have no clue how to use.