Del. Grower Hopes Specialty Crop Block Grant Will Bear Fruit

1/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

BRIDGEVILLE, De. — Charlie Smith has 50 acres of peaches and many varieties of apples growing on his farm in Bridgeville.

T.S. Smith & Sons is one of two remaining orchards in Delaware. Smith and his siblings are fourth-generation farmers on a farm known for delectable peaches and apples as crisp as a fall morning.

But there’s something new at Smith & Sons. There’s a half acre of dwarf sweet cherry trees, a few fig trees, eight varieties of European, Japanese and beach plums, a few quince and even a few pawpaw trees.

The cherries and figs are part of a specialty crop grant received by Smith & Sons and the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension to study alternative crops. Both will be grown in high tunnel greenhouses in an effort to see if they have the potential to become new, alternative crops for Delaware farmers.

The grant also includes some funding to grow day neutral strawberries in an effort to extend the season well beyond the traditional May and early June. The idea of growing strawberries that are available in the summer and fall is not a new one, and Smith is only one of the latest who will be looking at the potential for an extended season.

The grant was for $38,000, with Smith & Sons kicking in another $30,000 to study the potential for the new crops.

It is one of 10 research and marketing projects supporting Delaware specialty crops, which will receive more than $240,000 in funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, part of the Farm Bill.

The projects — operated by nonprofit organizations, academic researchers and local farms — will all enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops, which include fruits, vegetables, dried fruits, tree nuts, horticulture and nursery crops.

“These projects will all help Delaware growers and businesses by supporting and strengthening our local agricultural economy through expanding markets and developing new products,” Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee said. “The insights gained from the field research will lead to better yields and production methods, while the marketing initiatives will help make more Delawareans aware of the great local products that come from our farms.”

For example, Hail Bennett in Frankford received a previous grant to study various aspects of growing blueberries.

Ed Zitvogel in Ellendale received a grant this year to study using water misters to grow pole lima beans in the hope that the cooling water will mean beans are less likely to lose blossoms.

In the case of Smith & Sons, a half acre of various types of dwarf sweet cherry trees now line a field. The high tunnels will soon be placed over the six rows of trees which look very healthy, although bent slightly by the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

A few tart cherries will be grown outside the high tunnels to study the difference between growing cherries in the greenhouses or outside them. The project will study different ways of training the trees, as well as the four different cherry varieties being grown on raised beds to help avoid standing water issues.

While cherry trees grow just fine in the Delaware climate, the fruit often cracks and is damaged by wet spring weather. Birds also take a heavy toll on the fruit, eating large quantities of cherries.

“I’m really excited about this because I get to learn something new,” Smith said. “I’ve been growing apples and peaches all my life. I’m just excited because it’s something different and I get to learn.”

The cherry trees are the aspect of the grant that is the furthest along. Smith only has a very few fig trees at this point, but will be adding more after deciding which varieties to grow. The figs will also be grown in a high tunnel system.

Only a few varieties of figs are fully hardy in Delaware. Many of the best varieties are well suited to the South and would not overwinter successfully in Delaware. Southern varieties will go inside the tunnel and will be compared to other fig varieties produced outside the tunnel.

The strawberries will be grown in a low tunnel system.

Other alternative fruits and fruit products will be studied for consumer preference (texture, flavor, preference, other factors) using figs, pawpaws, quince and other specialty fruits. Pawpaws are sometimes called “a poor man’s banana,” Smith said.

Smith believes there will someday be a market for the different fruit crops, although the market may take some time to develop.

One reason Smith is excited about the possibility of you-pick cherry trees is that the crop could fill a void in the traditional growing season. Asparagus is a popular early spring crop for operations like Smith’s, but then there is a time lag between the asparagus season and mid- to late summer when peaches begin to ripen.

Cherries would fall squarely in the middle of that gap. Summer strawberries would also help fill the void, he said.<@body italic> <@$p>

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