T.S. Smith & Sons Farm in Bridgeville, Delaware
Branching Out: T.S. Smith & Sons has enjoyed the fruits of its labor for 105 years—and it continues to grow.
Charlie Smith leads a tour of the packing house. The Smiths still use the packing line, built in the late 1930s, to wash, sort and pack their apples
Photo by Carlos Alejandro
“Man, this rain is beautiful.”
A drizzle falls as Charlie Smith, arm out the window, hand upturned to feel the drops, drives his Chevy Silverado crew cab pickup through his orchards. Looking in from outside the world of agriculture, a comment about rain seems cliche, but there is nothing more important than water, preferably the kind that falls from the sky, preferably smack in the middle of barely-worth-mentioning to not-so-much-that-it-floods-the-fields. In any conversation with a farmer, the subject of rain is going to come up.
So today is a good day. After the “whackiest weather year” Smith can recall, one that was not only warm when it should have been cold and cool when it should have been warm, but light on precipitation, the drizzle is most welcome. It will not only nourish his crops, it will help recharge groundwater supplies. That’s important because Smith and his brothers, Tom and Matt, just dropped a boatload of money on new wells and new irrigation systems.
Which leads to another cliche about agriculture: Financially, a farmer is always one harvest away from ruin. But here’s a reason for cliches—they’re often true.
“We live, I wouldn’t say hand to mouth, but year to year,” Smith says, “which is exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
After 105 years in business, T.S. Smith & Sons in Bridgeville, the oldest commercial apple orchard on Delmarva, is branching out. More accurately, it continues to branch out. Thirty years ago, Smith started growing peaches. He then started raising new varieties of apple and nectarines. For the past five years he’s been planting sweet corn. And this year brings new fruits.
Along with new products comes a new marketing strategy: fewer sales to processors, more direct sales, a new store, increased participation at farmers markets, you-pick operations and more—all calculated to ensure T.S. Smith & Sons’ continued success. After all, you don’t get to be one of the most celebrated farms in the state if you don’t keep up with the times.
Yet the new investments and strategy may be a bit risky, because farming the T.S. Smith way is riskier than the norm. But the reward is greater for the grower and for you, the consumer, because T.S. Smith has something savvy eaters want more than ever: fresh, local food that will blow your doors off.
And few farmers are as good at growing it.
Many of us enjoy the fruits of large-scale monoculture, the practice of growing thousands and thousands of acres of the same crop year after year under strictly controlled conditions. Picture 20,000 acres of corn grown from modified seed in organically rich topsoil that goes 12 feet deep in South Dakota. The crop is fertilized chemically. Pests are controlled chemically. Water is managed to the drop via mechanized irrigation. Every aspect of growing is geared toward raising a product of consistent quality that will survive shipping over long distances and last through long periods in cold storage, or it’s geared toward raising foods for processing.
In Delaware, the typical farm model is different, says Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee. Most farmers grow corn or soy beans, and though they often use some of the same techniques as large industrial farms, their farms are much smaller—3,000 to 5,000 acres is humongous here. Their product is grown not for human consumption but for poultry feed. Most farmers downstate also raise chickens, and they might have a side line, like a small specialty crop, a roadside market or a you-pick field.
T.S. Smith, typical of neither model, is unique. It doesn’t grow dry field corn for chicken feed, though it’s better suited to the organically poor soils of the coastal plain. It grows a limited amount of sweet corn to be eaten off the cob, the kind with plump, juicy kernels that you look forward to buttering all summer long. A more important distinction: it grows fruit, a laborious process that requires constant vigilance, industry and care.
Not only does it grow fruit, but it grows the kind of fruit that you just can seldom find in the grocery store. A Red Delicious apple from T.S. Smith’s may not be as red as that shiny Red Delicious from the supermarket, but it was picked at its peak, so it’s got a crisp snap and full flavor that a grocery store apple doesn’t always have.
It’s the same with peaches. Those from the grocery store, grown down South and picked long before they’ve ripened and long before the local season peaks, can be green, hard, bland. A peach from Smith’s was picked the day it reached sweet perfection. When you bite in, you’re reminded all over again what summer tastes like.
It’s a point of pride for Smith, because as much as he loves farming, he loves turning people on to real food.
“When you hand someone a peach and they’ve got juice running all down their face and through their fingers, they say, ‘Man, I’ve never had anything like that.’” He laughs. “There’s just nothing better than that.”
T.S. Smith was established in 1907 by Smith’s great-grandfather, a butcher who traded a bill and some cash for 35 acres, then went into the business of growing apples. Over the years T.S. acquired neighboring fields and expanded his enterprise. The apples he grew—300 acres of them eventually—were sold mostly to canneries and juicers or pressed for cider on the premises. In 1938 there were 92 apple growers in Delaware. Now only T.S. Smith and Fifer Orchards in Wyoming remain.
In 1935 Smith’s started raising chickens for the young Delmarva poultry industry. When Hurricane Hazel blew all the apples off the trees in 1954, they were put in baskets on the loading dock of the packing house for sale at 50 cents a bushel, starting a retail business that thrives today. By the time Smith’s uncle and father, C.W. Smith Jr,, started working, the farm had begun growing corn and soy beans.
As the farm evolved, so did the business. When U.S. 13 was built in the 1950s, it bifurcated the property, but it also brought thousands of cars to and from the beaches at the height of the season—perfect for the produce market.
Tom, 65, left the farm for the University of Delaware in 1965. He earned a master’s degree in plant science before going to work for the next 28 years in research and development for agricultural chemical companies. When he retired in 1993, he returned to the farm, where he manages the market and outside sales. He lives in a house near Smith’s beloved cherry trees. Matt, 46, served full-time in the Delaware Air National Guard from 1984 to 1987, part time from 1987 to 2008, then exclusively at Smith’s ever since. He works as the farm manager, and lives with his family in a house across town.
Smith, actually C.W. Smith III, 59, “grew up on the business end of a crescent fork,
before skid loaders, cleaning chicken houses.” He chuckles, as he does at the end of most sentences. “Man, I don’t miss those days.” He lives on “the home farm,” the same white clapboard house, surrounded by magnolias and Eastern white cedar, that he grew up in. A talented guitarist, he attended UD on a 4-H scholarship, then left to play music professionally for a few years. After realizing he “wasn’t going to get rich and famous” (there’s the laugh again), he returned to the farm.
Another cliche: Ask a farmer if there’s some other way he’d like to make a living, and the answer is invariably, Nope. Smith is no exception.
Secretary Kee has known two generations of Smiths now. Theirs is a history and heritage he admires.
“You’ve got four generations going back in the same place, so they connect to when apple and peach production was the major industry in the state, 100 years ago. I really appreciate that fact,” Kee says. “But they’ve adapted to the times, changed their production and marketing scheme to meet new and emerging trends. They’re not just growing and shipping to local stores and roadside markets, so I admire their willingness to change and adapt.”
Kee has written extensively about the past 150 years of agriculture in Delaware, so he understands the big picture like few others. At the turn of the 20th century, he says, Delaware was king of the peach industry, until a disease called the yellows destroyed the trees. Yet other fruit and vegetable farmers did well; until World War II, there was a cannery in almost every town. By the end of the war, however, competition had increased from the Western states, including California, where favorable growing conditions, government subsidies and new technologies boosted production to levels farmers elsewhere couldn’t easily meet. A new interstate highway system that made shipping fast, easy and inexpensive put additional pressure on local farmers, and local families lost interest in running their aging canneries.
Delaware farming began to change. As the poultry industry grew, so did grain production. Of the 500,000 acres planted in Delaware today, 220,000 acres are soy, 180,000 acres are corn and 60,000 are fresh vegetables, like lima beans.
Yet through the evolution to a poultry- and grain-producing state, T.S. Smith continued to do what it had always done. That may have put it in a risky place—fruit is far more vulnerable to environmental factors and disease than grain is, so a bad season could spell doom—but it can also be a real boon: When the apple harvest is down, as it was from New York to North Carolina this year, Smith’s fruit fetches top dollar.
“The reality of life in farming,” Smith says, “is supply and demand.” He’s learned there’s an even bigger demand for his products than he once realized, especially with new interest in eating fresh and eating local. Smith started to see a whole bunch of new opportunities—most of them right in the backyard.
College, Smith says, taught him how to learn. His father, who passed away last year at age 89—still working—taught him how to farm. Kee is a great admirer of the Smiths’ ability to grow.
As local agriculture changed, so did the farm, but in a different way. After 75 years of apples, Smith planted his first peach trees. He took a stab at high-density production in 1993 by planting Fuji apples at 450 trees per acre in an effort to increase yields and profits. New varieties of apples followed, with more acres of peaches, then some nectarines. This year Smith added new fruit trees.
Growing fruit is far different than growing grain. Grain, Kee points out, requires an investment in capital—seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, sometimes rent on fields, irrigation systems and heavy machinery. Most of the work is done by machine. Fruit requires an investment in labor, because other than tilling and planting corn, almost all the work at T.S. Smith is done by hand.
In spring, that means, among other things, planting corn. Matt got the first seed in on March 7, under protective plastic, for harvest by mid-June—the first local corn of the year. He will plant 12 acres every week until the season’s end. At the peak of the season, workers will harvest 1,000 ears a day. At 10,000 ears per 100 acres, that’s 1 million ears per season—all picked by hand.
Cantaloupes also are planted by hand, then covered by high tunnels to retain moisture and stifle weed growth. No machine can do that. Old apple and peach trees must be replaced when they reach the end of their productive lives. They are removed by hand, then replaced with saplings that are planted by hand. Old trees are pruned by hand. When the apples, peaches and nectarines start to come on, the fruits are thinned by hand so the remaining ones can grow to a marketable size. Some trees need to be sprayed for pests or weeds 15 times a season. At harvest, fruit and vegetables are picked by hand. Each stalk of asparagus on 10 acres is cut with a knife during the six weeks of its harvest. Pests and weeds are controlled by hand—all of it in effort to coax as much food as possible from each acre.
As if that weren’t enough, Smith wanted to plant new fruits last spring, including a few persimmons, figs and beach plums. All those saplings were planted by hand. The 300 cherries had to be covered with plastic sleeves to protect them from browsing deer, then the branches had to be trained by weighting them with clothespins. When the deer found them anyway, Smith and his crew hung individual bags of Milorganite, a slow-release organic nitrogen fertilizer that the animals find offensive. At times they’ve tried to manage animals by hanging sheets of Febreze or sprinkling with aftershave from the Dollar General.
And on top of all that, the trickle irrigation system that waters the new trees has to be checked constantly. The big hard-hose irrigation system has to be moved manually through the fields. The dry winter and spring made more irrigation necessary. The mild weather meant more pests survived into spring, increasing the amount of time and effort needed to control them.
One other thing: Last spring Smith reclaimed the tin roof and timbers of an old chicken house to build a pavilion out in the fields, a place people can rent for you-pick parties and other events.
Which leads to yet another cliche about farmers: They work constantly.
“We say that we only work half days,” Matt laughs. “Just pick the 12 hours you want to work.”
And that’s just the farming. With his girlfriend, Greer Stangl, a farm employee, Smith has been working on new marketing schemes. One is to get more T.S. Smith produce into local outlets, and to do it directly. The farm, in fact, has downsized in order to increase direct sales.
Smith has stopped selling to processors who make applesauce and pie filling. Instead, they’re selling fruit to 16 Mile Brewery in Georgetown and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton for specialty beers. Peaches go to the fire department in Felton for its annual ice cream fundraiser. T.S. Smith participates in a national farm-to-school program for lunches. It sells to local specialty producers like Back Yard jellies and Jams, as well as Willey Farms in Townsend, local ShopRite stores, the Walmart Supercenter in Milford, and produce stands on U.S. 50 and U.S. 404. Smith and Stangl participate in the Milton Farmers Market every Friday, and they do two farm-to-table dinners a month at local restaurants like Abbott’s Grill in Milford. Last spring, Smith and a winemaker from the Eastern Shore collaborated on a limited quantity of hard cider for sale in local liquor stores.
Smith is also trying to attract more visitors to the farm. Beyond the established market on Redden Road and a fairly new satellite in Easton, Md., he opened Orchard Point Market on the northbound side of U.S. 13 this year, Sundays only late June through early November, to catch beach visitors on their way home to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Last year T.S. Smith hosted the Slow Foods Delmarva Festival, and this year it organized Smith’s first Celebration of Mothers in May. During the Bridgeville Apple-Scrapple Festival each October, he personally leads tours of the farm.
Smith wants to sell produce and maximize profits sure enough. But he also wants to educate people, especially kids. The farm has a unique history that’s worth knowing about: There’s still a chicken house built by German POWs in the 1940s. And despite all the manual labor, it employs some thoroughly modern practices—soil analysis to determine what supplements the crops need most, controlling insect pests with careful use of predator insects—and state-of-the-art technologies such as high tunnels, trickle irrigation and a 178-panel solar array to power the cold storage area next to the market.
“That puts a positive spin on your farm,” he says. “To say I’m trying to reduce my carbon footprint, I like that. It’s important to know that we use sustainable practices. We wouldn’t be here 105 years if we didn’t.”
The effort has been noticed. T.S. Smith & Sons is a state-designated century farm, meaning it has been operated by the same family for at least 100 years. The farm is under federal review as a national historical site. The state recently launched its new agri-tourism trail there. And the Small Business Administration awarded T.S. Smith & Sons its Family Business of the Year Award, a state honor that Kee says is not only heartwarming, but more important, “telling about the interest the non-farm community has in the importance of agriculture. It’s a recognition that the public is understanding the importance of open space and food sourcing.”
So in a time when fruit growing has become almost a novelty in Delaware, and farm owners everywhere are often under heavy pressure to sell to real estate developers, the Smith brothers have managed to create something special: a living link to the past that is always reaching toward the future.
“It’s our time. We’ve arrived,” Smith says. “I think we’re really going to see a difference. We have what people want.”
It seems that at T.S. Smith & Sons, success is as sweet as a perfect peach.