“Understanding Today’s Agriculture” class visits Fifer Orchards

Fifer Orchards in Camden-Wyoming, Kent County served as destination for Understanding Today’s Agriculture‘s (AGRI 130) second class tour. A fourth-generation family farm with approximately 3,000 acres in production, Fifer’s diverse operation offered students a close-up examination of how one family’s strategy in the management of a multi-tiered agriculture operation has evolved and grown into one of Delaware’s most successful agriculture businesses.

On this tour, students observed retail and wholesale agribusiness, community engagement through agritourism, the development of community supported agriculture  (CSA), the considerations the family makes with regard to crop selection and production, management of farm labor, implementation of technology, and challenges with weather and disease pressures.

Bobby Fifer climbed inside the UD bus and welcomed students to his family’s farm. As the bus lumbered through the dirt roads, Fifer explained his primary role in the family business is to oversee agronomic production decisions and management.

Bobby Fifer talks to students inside bus

After touring high tunnel tomato production (no longer in production), the bus stopped at a field where cold-weather crops such as kale and cauliflower are currently in production.  Fifer explained that weather factored as the biggest challenge during the 2018 growing season. One student asked, “What is the biggest pest you deal with?” and Fifer’s  emphatic one-word answer: “rain.”

Bus drives to production fields of kale and cauliflower

Farm laborers continually monitor the crops and remove yellowed leaves, seen on the ground.

close up of kale growing on farm

A field of cauliflower looks healthy and just beginning to flower.

Field of cauliflowers

Fifer took questions from students. He explained one of the challenges his family faces, besides weather and the related disease pressure, is deciding what crops will be planted for the following year and how much acreage will be devoted to a particular crop. Fifer also considers which crops aren’t worth pursuing, and where crops should be rotated. A priority are pumpkins and sweet corn which are the farm’s most successful crops by production acre. Tomatoes grown in high tunnel and strawberries in plasticulture rows are also a mainstay crop. The farm also produces asparagus, peaches and apples. Grain is grown as a rotation crop.

Through the bus windows, students watched strawberries planted in rows covered by plastic. The tractor, guided by GPS, is adapted as a transplanter with a conveyor belt and seating for 5-6 laborers who punch young strawberry plants through slits in the rows of plastic, known as plasticulture. The plastic reduces weeds and protects water fed through drip irrigation from evaporation.

A tractor, guided by GPS pulls a wagon carrying a half a dozen laborers who plant stawberries in holes punctured in plastic rows

Thousands of future strawberries speckle rows of plasticulture. Technological advances help farmers practice better stewardship of the land by managing water and weather more effectively. Strawberries are an important and profitable crop for Fifer Orchards.

rows of plasticulture with newly planted strawberries

Following the bus tour, Fifer guided students through the cold storage area. Here, in addition to retail sales, commercial production takes over. Another brother, Kurt Fifer, handles all the farm’s wholesale and commercial business. Labor management, logistics, overseeing FSMSA (Food Safety Management Act) and all government regulations falls under Kurt Fifer’s family role.

students inside cold storage listen to Bobby Fifer

Bobby explains the difference in broccoli quality. The family sells its produce commercially, through its retail store and through community supported agriculture or CSAs. CSAs, essentially a subscription service, delivers seasonal, locally grown fruits and vegetables to convenient locations throughout the state where they are picked up by subscriber customers. The success of CSAs are one way Fifer Orchards can distribute local agriculture without the costly investment in brick and mortar stores.

Bobby Fifer holds up broccoli grown on farm

Below, Kurt Fifer talks to students outside the packing house and barn. Both brothers recognize that climate change exists and manage their decisions accordingly. For now, warmer temperatures extend the farm’s growing season. Fifer’s fruits and vegetables reach from Florida to Maine and as far west as the Mississippi River. Fifer explained that logistics remains a challenge and suggested solving that problem would be an excellent career opportunity.

Fifer’s supplies national grocery stores such as Wegman’s, Giant, Whole Foods, Walmart, Harris Teeter, and local stores such as Lloyds IGA, Hocker’s Market, Janssen’s Market and several regional farm stands and local farmers’ markets. Because their business is seasonal, with six months out of production, retaining full-time staff is not practical. The Fifer’s rely on regular part-time staff such as students and retirees looking for additional income.

Kurt-Fifer talks to students outside commercial packing and loading area

Fifer’s first cousin Mike Fennemore, busy with the launch of Fifer’s Fall Festival, leads all of Fifer Orchard’s communication and marketing initiatives with community engagement and retail sales.  His team’s efforts include the expansion of their successful country store,  the growth of CSAs in the community, the development and expansion of community events such as the popular Fall Festival, which includes a new corn maze every year, and other attractions.  He and his team oversee all social media outreach on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In difficult weather years like 2018, diversifying into agritourism is a proven and sound financial practice. Another Fifer brother, David, handles all the farm infrastructure, equipment repair and engineering needs.

entrance to Fall Festival corn maze area

In autumn, Fifer’s ample grounds and parking lot transforms into picnic areas, a bandstand, a gallery of local vendors and food trucks, and crates of gourds and pumpkins for sale. Pumpkins are one of Fifer’s most profitable crops.

Exterior view of Fifer Orchards retail store and pumpkins for sale

Specialty pumpkins, like these small white decor favorites, are not grown on the farm, but brought in as a value-added product for customers.

bins of small white pumpkins for sale

Inside the country store, home grown and locally grown produce, as well as value-added canned and baked goods are for sale.

inside of Fifer's country store

Jannelle Hayward, one of many  University of Delaware AGRI 130 customers on this Saturday, happily holds up her purchases! In addition to homemade Fifer Orchards’ apple cider, fresh baked apple cider doughnuts proved a popular choice in the store.

Bobby Fifer, far left and Kurt Fifer, far right, pose with University of Delaware AGRI 130 students. The Fifer family has welcomed University of Delaware CANR students for all four years of the class, typically during one of the busiest seasons of their family farm operation! We appreciate their time offered. The students gained insights into how multiple members of the family divide their roles, communicate, and plan ahead for the following season. They learned the family meets several times a year to  evaluate and assess what works, what doesn’t, and how to better serve their local and national customers. Establishing well-defined roles within the family is a key to their success.

Class picture at Fifer Orchard

Next field trip is Oct. 19 at Hoober, Inc. in Middletown where students will learn about precision agriculture equipment and even drive a tractor!

Story and photos: Michele Walfred