“People are usually surprised when I tell them that agriculture is Delaware’s number one industry,” says Anna Stoops, an agricultural agent for University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. “I’m based in the New Castle County office and most county residents live in urban or suburban settings. They’re not exposed to agriculture so they don’t realize the impact local farmers have on their lives.”
“A Day on the Farm” was created by New Castle County Extension 10 years ago to educate Delawareans about modern-day farming – and to have a lot of fun while doing it. This free community celebration of agriculture has been held at a pumpkin-picking farm in North Wilmington, an ice-cream farm in Hockessin, a produce operation and tractor supplier, both in Middletown, and next Saturday, will be held at Coleman’s Christmas Tree Farm near Odessa.
“Families come out for the pony rides, live animals, straw bale maze and games,” says Stoops. “But they always have a ton of questions about farming – and sometimes the adults have as many misconceptions as the kids.”
When “A Day on the Farm” was held at Woodside Farm Creamery, owner Jim Mitchell had to explain that the “deer” out in the field were actually Jersey cows – yep, dairy cows can be fawn-colored, not just black and white.
This Saturday, Jack Coleman, who owns Coleman’s Christmas Tree Farm with his wife, Debbie, and their daughter, Nadine Skidmore, will probably field a few questions about whether a live Christmas tree is preferable to an artificial one.
Some people don’t understand that at a tree farm, trees are planted as a crop, and meant to be cut down, just like corn is picked or hay cut at other farms.
“Christmas trees are a crop and a renewable resource,” says Marianne Hardesty, a conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation District who has worked with the Colemans on several natural resource projects. “Buying a live tree makes sense environmentally because artificial trees require petroleum to be made and when trashed end up in the land fill. In contrast, an acre of farm-grown trees provide enough oxygen for 18 people, offer wildlife habitat, controls erosion, and, instead of going to the landfill, can be chipped and used as mulch.”
The Colemans are good stewards of the land, just like the majority of Delaware farmers, says Stoops. Their 330-acre farm includes about 200 acres of tidal marsh. To protect the marsh, they’ve installed filter strips – vegetated areas — around fields. They also maintain wooded buffers around the farm’s five ponds. These strips and buffers filter out sediment and nutrients from runoff water before it enters streams, ponds and wetlands.
And the Colemans have taken an active role in reducing non-native phragmites in their marshland. Working with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife Division and the Natural Resources Conservation District, they’ve been spraying since 2004 to control phragmites. Non-native phragmite is an invasive plant from Europe that quickly creates a monoculture, choking out the native plants that are a source of food and shelter for native wildlife.
Visitors to “A Day on the Farm” will learn about these and other conservation efforts during a 45-minute hayride that travels past forested areas, ponds, a ridge overlooking the Appoquinimink River, and, most importantly, acres and acres of Christmas trees.
Delaware isn’t the easiest place to grow a Christmas tree – many evergreen species don’t like heat and humidity. Nonetheless, the state is home to more than 30 Christmas tree operations, which serve as destination farms – “a place where people go to buy an experience and not just a tree,” notes Gordon Johnson, a UD Extension specialist and an expert on agri-tourism.
Johnson says that most local growers plant white pine, which is native to Delaware, and Douglas fir, which is a non-native that flourishes here.
The mainstay of the Colemans’ operation is the Douglas fir but they’ve also planted white, concolor and canaan firs. The trees are planted in the spring and usually grow for 8 years before being sold as pick-and-cut or pre-cut trees.
For those who feel it’s too early to be thinking about Christmas trees, no worries, Coleman’s also has pumpkins and Indian corn growing in fields that were Christmas trees last year or the year before. “Rotating the fields to different crops allows farmers to control weeds, insects and diseases that were in the tree plots,” says Hardesty. “It also allows them to work in lime to control the acidity of the soil and smooth the field back out before more trees are planted.”
A Day on the Farm
Sept. 18, 10 a.m. 4 p.m.
More than 40 agricultural exhibitors will be on hand to present tours, demonstrations and displays. Children’s activities include a straw bale maze, pony rides, games and a scavenger hunt. Farm-fresh food will include pulled pork and scrapple sandwiches, ice cream from Woodside Farm Creamery and produce from local growers. Coleman’s Christmas Tree is off Route 9, near Odessa. For GPS directions use: 550 Silver Road, Middletown. For more info, call 831-COOP.
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