Share: 

Apple-picking lives on in Sussex

T.S. Smith & Sons honors farming roots
Clara Cramer, 3, admires her pick. MADDY LAURIA PHOTOS
October 12, 2017

Nothing says fall like grabbing the family and heading to the nearest farm to pick apples fresh from the tree.

In Sussex County, there's only one place to go: T.S. Smith & Sons in Bridgeville.

“October is apple month,” said Charlie Smith, one of the three Smith brothers running the family farm. “Families love to come out and relax, and enjoy the experience of picking their own fruit.”

Apples, peaches and other fruits have been grown on the 800-acre farm near Route 113 since 1907, when Smith's great-grandfather, Thomas Sterling Smith, traded an outstanding butcher bill for 35 acres of land.

The packing store on Redden Road, where the Smith farm began, houses the still-operational sorting belt from the 1930s. Apples of all shapes and sizes slide by employees standing along the line as the scent of fresh apples and homemade donuts wafts through the small store.

“We're trying to integrate the best of the future with the traditions of the past,” Smith said, pointing out the old equipment alongside the relatively new solar panels outside the Smiths' refrigeration shed.

Down the road, hundreds of apple trees beckon families to pick their fruit. The farm offers you-pick apples each weekend from the beginning of September until they're gone, usually by the end of October.

“Every apple here is hand-picked,” Smith said. “We're a dying breed. We do everything old school.”

A lot has changed since the Smith farm started. When its founder started growing apples, there were more than 90 other growers throughout the state. Now only two remain: T.S. Smith and Fifer Orchards near Dover.

“There's very few of us left,” he said. Smith said many farmers moved away from the riskier fruit-growing business in the 1930s and 1940s, when poultry growing started to take off on Delmarva. And as markets became more globalized, it became more difficult for American farmers like the Smiths to grow produce for products like applesauce.

“In the '80s, I had 300 acres of apples,” he said. “Now I have 60.”

While the number of trees has declined, the Smiths aren't slowing down.

“You're married to it,” he said. “I can't just change my mind.”

Smith and his two brothers, Tom and Matt, offer a dozen varieties, from the tart, green Lodi to the blushing, crisp Pink Lady.

Fujis are the best, Smith said, adding that he eats at least one a day. Some times three – or more.

“There is truth to the adage 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away,'” Smith said. “There's nothing better for you.”

This year has been one of the best growing seasons in years, Smith said, with evidence in the large, juicy fruit hanging among 60 acres of trees. Walking down rows of trees on an abnormally warm Saturday in late September, with temperatures reaching 90 degrees, is not ideal, Smith said.

“Apples hate this,” he said. “It's hard to grow a perfect apple in this climate.”

His apples are blooming earlier, too. For years, he said, Smith could bet his money that apple-picking time wouldn't roll around until Aug. 19. Now it's Aug. 1, but this year gala and ginger golds were ready in mid-July.

“One of my main concerns with our farm and the future of farming is global warming,” Smith said. “I've seen the shift in seasons.”

Smith and his brothers are adapting to those changes, but they continue to focus on the fresh-market approach that Sussex Countians seem to want. They recently built a new farm market on the corner of Route 113 and Redden Road, which is filled with apples, pumpkins, mums and soon the scent of fresh-baked goods.

“As the only remaining orchard in Sussex County, we like to take advantage of our uniqueness,” he said. “I'm proud of the farm and my heritage and my family.”

For more about the farm, go to tssmithandsons.com.