Bringing Delaware’s Penn Farm into the 21st Century

 Historic Penn Farm (courtesy of Delaware Greenways)

Historic Penn Farm (courtesy of Delaware Greenways)

While most Americans associate William Penn with Philadelphia, evidence suggests that Penn spent his first night in the New World in Delaware.

It’s a point of pride for many Delawareans that, in 1682, Penn quartered in a brick home on what is now Delaware Street in Old New Castle.

And New Castle residents are equally proud of how their community has preserved Penn’s legacy, with a unique organization called the Trustees of the New Castle County tasked with maintaining some 1,000 acres that Penn had surveyed in 1701 and designated for community use.

In 1792, the trustees set aside 11 tracts as farmland, where settlers tended the livestock and grew the crops that were essential for the town to sustain itself.

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Today, only one of those farms remains – Penn Farm on Route 273, about a mile west of the historic district. Three years ago, the trustees contracted with the nonprofit Delaware Greenways to revitalize the farm and bring Penn’s vision into the 21st century.

“If you look at William Penn’s plans for New Castle and for other cities, you’ll see that farms were an integral part of them. A critical reason for the success of William Penn’s communities was that farms provided essential resources for the people who came to live here,” said Mike McGrath, the retired state agricultural preservation chief who helped the trustees develop their concept for the property.

The key now, just as it was three centuries ago, is to make the farm’s operations sustainable, said Steve Borleske, past president of Delaware Greenways.

To ensure sustainability, Greenways has developed a series of strategic partnerships. It has relied on the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Agency for advice on drainage and runoff problems and on UD’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design for suggestions on how to refurbish the property’s farmhouse, which was built in stages in the early 19th century.

The most significant of those partnerships is with William Penn High School, whose campus borders the north side of the farm. Students in William Penn’s agriculture program have been growing vegetables on the four-acre plot that provides food for about 75 participants in the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture program.

Students in the culinary arts program, who work in the Penn Bistro, a campus café for faculty and staff, are now partnering with the agriculture students to decide which crops to plant.

This summer, the Colonial School District will take the program a step further, creating a genuine farm-to-school-to-table system. Brian Erskine, William Penn’s supervisor of academic and degree programs, said the district will incorporate produce grown on the farm into the menus for its summer nutrition program, which provides meals for low-income residents.

‘Everything is on the table’

Delaware Greenways is starting to reach out to New Castle residents to get their ideas on what they would like to see at the farm.

“What would you like to see here? What’s your vision for the farm,” Borleske asked a visitor last week.

“Everything is on the table,” added Andrea Trabelsi, who manages Greenways’ healthy communities program.

On a day when sixth graders from Colonial schools were visiting, Trabelsi recalled that one student suggested “fishing.” At first blush, that might fall under what Trabelsi would label a “far-out idea,” but given some of the drainage issues on the site, creation of a pond is not out of the question.

And, with sustainability in mind, she points out that fish stocked in a pond could be raised and sold, potentially creating a fresh revenue stream for the farm.

Becca Manning, the farm manager, has heard all sorts of ideas for the farm’s barn, including use of the venue for concerts, art shows, painting classes, yoga lessons, even showing an occasional movie.

While those ideas might not add up to sustainability in an economic sense, each one could inject some 21st century relevance into the 18th century farm.

One New Castle resident who likes what’s going on at Penn Farm, even if he hasn’t gotten involved there yet, is Russ Smith.

Smith is a William Penn grad who returned to his hometown last year as superintendent of the new First State National Monument, created to tell the story of Delaware’s colonial era.

“I can see the connection — the everyday life of the farmer with the political story of New Castle,” Smith said.

How the community responds to Greenways’ outreach efforts could have a significant impact on how Penn Farm evolves.

“We want to know how the community would like to use this place,” Borleske says. “We’re looking at a lot of other urban agriculture initiatives. There are a lot of promising possibilities.”

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