Despite developers’ offers, tenuous economics and unending chores, family farmers in coastal Delaware say they’ll provide locally sourced food till the cows come home

By Chris Beakey | Photographs by Carolyn Watson
From the Holiday 2018 issue

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Henry Bennett grew up on his family’s farm just outside Frankford, about 10 miles from the beaches where he loved to surf with his high school friends. Early on, those friends learned there would be days when Bennett couldn’t join them. As they headed east to catch the morning waves, he’d stay behind to collect eggs from the chicken house, haul pruned branches from the orchard, and chop firewood for the woodstove that served as the main heat source for the family home.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” he says, reflecting on those days as he sits at the kitchen table in a house built by his grandparents. “It was always hard, and there were a lot of days when I just hated it.”

Seated behind a desk in a small office at his dairy farm just outside Lewes, Walter “Burli” Hopkins has similar childhood recollections of baling straw and working in a hayloft where the temperature regularly reached 120 degrees in the summer.

Then, as now, “it’s hard to find anyone who wants to do that kind of work,” he says.

Both men describe these experiences in a tone that conveys grudging appreciation for the lessons they’ve learned as lifelong farmers. With some prompting, they also talk about the small profit margins, losing crops due to increasingly volatile weather, and the lack of leisure time for most of the year.

It isn’t long, though, before the conversation meanders into familiar territory for virtually anyone working farmlands in eastern Sussex County: the possibility of selling their property to developers.

And why not? Throughout the county, vast stretches of rural acreage are being transformed into suburban neighborhoods, bringing big profits to the landowners. With nearly 2,000 new homes approved by Sussex County officials in 2018 alone, residents and visitors who’ve grown accustomed to seeing more houses than livestock alongside country roads may assume that the region’s agricultural heritage will soon be relegated to the past.

Not so, say Bennett, Hopkins and several others who are part of the region’s contemporary farming culture. Thanks to prudent economics, sustainable practices, and their abiding love for working the land, they are determined to protect and strengthen Sussex County’s family farming culture for years to come.

 

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