Kent farms thrive with wine clubs and honey lip balms

Joe Nicolais checks his bee hives on his Wyoming property, where he makes honey and related products. Photo by Eric Crossan

By Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times

On Friday nights, Michelle Harvey likes to drive out to Harvest Ridge Winery in Marydel to have a slider, maybe play some cornhole, and, of course, have a glass or two of wine. As a member of winery’s wine club, she attends quarterly “pick-Up” parties where she literally picks up that quarter’s wine selection and takes part in whatever seasonal festivities that are going on.

Harvest Ridge gives a whole new meaning to farming, said Harvey, director of casino accounting for Dover Downs Hotel and Casino.

But Harvest Ridge isn’t the only place changing the face of farming in Kent County.

Farmers are coming to a crossroad, said John Clendaniel, farm management specialist with Delaware State University. Smaller farms have to make a decision to either rent land to grow the big commercial crops like corn and soybeans, or stay small and build up the more labor intensive, higher-margin produce crops.

“We have more than 850 family farms in Kent County farming close to 180,000 acres,” said Kenny Bounds, deputy secretary of agriculture for Delaware. “One of the ways for a farmer to spread out the risk and increase the farm’s sustainability is to diversify.”

That diversity in Kent includes farms with grapes, Christmas trees, apiaries, flowers, even farms that
are tourist destinations like Harvest Ridge.

It was a bad glass of wine in a vineyard in the middle of South Carolina that vaulted Chuck Nunan, owner of Harvest Ridge, into the business. Nunan, a basement wine maker at the time, figured if that place could be making money, he could do it better. He went home, dug up the 14-acre corn field, and started planting grapes. That was in 2010. They poured their first bottle in 2013, and expect to turn a profit in the coming year.

“This is my passion,” said Nunan, who agrees with the philosophy of many of today’s new smaller farmers — don’t give up your day job right away.

Although, that could change. The market is growing.

“A lot of the fruit and vegetable farms are supported by Delawareans wanting access to
fresh, local produce,” said Bounds.

Kent has always been a food hub, according to James Waddington, Kent County Economic Partnership director. More than 100 years ago the county was full of factories canning local crops.

He loves seeing more farms turn to produce again.

Farms can be smaller and still make a living selling fruits and vegetables, said Waddington, a fan of the small family farm. “It’s what we should be aiming toward.”

Farms can’t get much smaller than Joe Nicolai’s. He and his wife, Theresa, own Big Joe’s Honey, sitting on fewer than two acres in the town of Wyoming. Bees are a great way to get into farming, said Nicolai. They aren’t a lot of work, and they don’t take up a lot of space. According to the Food and Drug Administration classification, anyone with a bee hive in the backyard can say he lives on a farm, said Nicolai.

With their 25 hives, the Nicolais make honey and related products such as lip balms and skin creams. Going into their fourth year, they are hoping to make a small profit, but it’s more a passion than a business, he explained. Most farmers raise bees more to make their crops flourish than to sell bee products.

That is true down the road at Fifer Orchard. Bees aren’t one of their products, but are critical to the production of their fruit and vegetable business.

“Fifer is at the top of their game,” said Waddington. “They are hitting all of the high notes.”

Fifer, a tourist destination, has everything from tomatoes to apple cider doughnuts. They have “u-pick” options and CSAs (community-supported agriculture) subscriptions that deliver weekly baskets of fresh produce to subscribers in season.

Getting the public involved is proving key to profitability.

Farms are complying by becoming family destinations. Loblolly Acres in Felton started as a traditional farm with some Christmas trees on the side. Today the farm bills itself as the “Family Farm for Fun.” They offer hayrides, face painting, nature trails, straw mazes and petting zoos. For Halloween alone, the whole farm is transformed into a giant holiday get-together, complete with costume parties and a trick-or-treat trail. For Christmas, the trees are still there for cutting, but there are also games to play, wreaths to buy and a reindeer to visit.

Diversity is strong in Delaware agriculture, said Clendaniel. He helps novices get into farming through the farm school at Delaware State University. A lot of farms in Kent are choosing to stay small and create their own niches in the market, he said. “Farms are not dying. People are investing and doing well.”

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