Heritage Oak Farm

Larry Armstrong Jr. discusses conservation easements to the Wildlife Habitat Management class. Photo by Abby Walter
Larry Armstrong Jr. discusses conservation easements to the Wildlife Habitat Management class. Photo by Abby Walter

Heritage Oak Farm in Smyrna, DE is home to Larry Armstrong Jr., a third-generation farmer interested in continuing his family tradition while remaining conscious of the needs of the environment. Bought in 1946 by Armstrong Jr.’s grandfather, who had a double major from Drexel, the farm was used to raise sheep and served as pastureland for his family. Today, sustainable land-use practices to benefit the environment are funded through conservation programs through both the state and federal governments.

Armstrong Jr.’s grandfather set up the family farm to be supported by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in his quest to be more sustainable. Marianne Hardesty, District Conservationist in New Castle from the NRCS, discussed how these programs have been helping farmers for decades. Their organization conducts soil surveys, funds wetland management, and provides means for farmers to be eco-friendly even when money is tight.

The farm itself is composed of 410 acres and has tidal marsh habitat surrounding it. On the farm 120 acres are tilled, 120 acres are wooded areas, and the rest remains original saltmarsh. Due to their close proximity to the aquatic ecosystem, the Armstrongs have always been careful about their farming practices. They participate in no-till farming, use forest buffers to reduce effects of runoff, and use rotational grazing. Armstrong Jr. even mentioned that they plant cover crops like clover before corn is even harvested by dropping seed from an airplane. The corn harvest results in tractors pressing seed into the soil for it to establish. Green sprouts pop up between the corn stubble before leaves fall off the trees in November – making sure the soils stay in place and nutrients can be maintained for even longer.

On the farm, prescribed burning is also done to manage grasslands. The family is sure to flush out wildlife species before starting a burn to minimize impacts on small mammals and birds.

Reptiles benefit from Armstrong’s management as well. Our University of Delaware class visited two wetland areas being managed specifically for turtles and waterfowl. One wood duck box on a refuge pond has been home to dozens of ducklings over the past several years.

Armstrong also has wild turkeys on his farm, a fact he is both proud of and is conscious to maintain. “We only shoot the big drakes, because we want to make sure we keep a good population on the land.”

When asked if any quail had become established as immigrants from nearby Cedar Swamp State Wildlife Area, Armstrong Jr. said they hadn’t quite made the leap yet. Habitat management is a big component of keeping quail safe from predators, and although there have been a few visitors, the family is eager to work on quail management areas on the farm in hopes that they will start making more of a comeback.

One large issue for Heritage Oak Farm is combating the overabundance of white-tailed deer. Hunting is pursued every year on the Armstrong property, but neighboring farmers do not permit hunting on their land. The result is a large population of deer that find refuge during hunting season but browse heavily and damage understory plants during the off-season. This is not only detrimental to the farm, to wildlife species who need the understory shrub cover that is eaten, but also to the deer herd that suffers overwinter mortality each year.

The Armstrong family is still committed to sustainable agriculture today. A large part about being an environmentalist is just being conscious of nature. “The best thing is taking my nephews out hunting is being able to let them see everything as it wakes up,” said Larry Armstrong Jr. He is committed to continuing the traditions on the farm and making sure the next generations remain interested in conserving nature and the wildlife through educating kids and giving them plenty of time to enjoy the outdoors.

Article by: Abby Walter