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Private Farm

Dover, Delaware.

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Private Farm

Dover, Delaware.

I'd like to invite you to view this page a little differently from the other "Where I've Hiked" pages. Rather than a description of a particular place that I know, consider this an invitation to explore farms and other small private lands in your area. I will describe something of a farm that I used to explore, but bear in mind that there are thousands of farms, each like this farm in some ways, and each unique in its own way.

Yes, this is about a particular farm that probably no longer exists, but it is also about opportunities to explore a little bit of nature in your own neighborhood in places you might have overlooked.

In stories about this place, I refer to the proprietor of this farm as "The Lazy Farmer." Like many small farms in and around Dover, this farm was not cultivated by the people who lived there and owned the land, but by a larger corporate farm that leased out fields from these smaller landowners.

For a couple of years, I went tramping through the woods and fields of this farm with a classmate who lived just around the corner from the farm. We would camp there about three or four times in the summer, and just generally observe what wildlife there was to see.

Back in my school days, this farm was a great place to observe nature because it was within a fairly easy bicycle ride. Projecting that idea forward to my present situation, I am no longer restricted to bicycle range, but it's nice to have a small, natural place that I can reach quickly, so that I can take a stroll in the woods if I find myself with a few extra minutes in the evening.

If I didn't have a wooded city park right around the corner, I'd certainly consider making friends with someone who owned a small farm or a woodlot close by. You should do the same.

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How to Get There

If you live near the margins of any town or city, there is probably a farm or woodlot or other relatively undeveloped land near your home. You might pass by it every day and never really notice. So slow down and notice!

The farm where I used to go in Dover was located near the northeastern edge of the city. There was a typical suburban development, where my friend lived, right across the street from this farm, and the margin of the farm between the soybean fields and the suburban street was covered by a narrow strip of oak and tulip forest. Perpendicular to that street was a country road that led east into more and more farm country. But just a few hundred feet down that road was the Lazy Farmer's house and barn.

A kid on a bicycle notices such details: The farm across the street is directly connected to that old white house around the corner. If you're a typical adult suburbanite, such connections might not be so obvious. You might need to slow down, walk around, and figure out what house belongs to the little patch of woodland that you've been ignoring.

Don't forget to introduce yourself and describe your intentions before you begin exploring the woods. Most small landowners are happy to allow people to use their woods and fields for watching birds and observing nature, but they'd rather know for sure who's there and why.

My friend and I made ourselves known to the Lazy Farmer. We were not the first kids to go tramping through his woods or fishing in his pond, but we were the first to do so with his permission. Sad.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

Like most of Delaware, the Lazy Farmer's farm was very nearly flat. There was a small stream that formed the eastern boundary with the next farm, and the land sloped very slightly toward that stream.

Most of the farm, of course, was planted in crops. Of a total of maybe three hundred acres, about thirty acres was forested. The forests were mostly very swampy, with no clear boundary between the forest and the stream.

These woodlands, tiny as they were, and these fields, cultivated though they were, were home to quite a diverse population of birds and animals. There were raccoons, opossums, squirrels, weasels, and the occasional red fox. There were downy woodpeckers, brown thrashers, and numerous songbirds. These were the prey of the resident cooper's hawks and an occasional visiting red-tailed hawk. A few coveys of bobwhite quail would feed in the fields and shelter in the hedgerows, along with a great many rabbits (which were also hunted by the red-tailed hawks). In the night, the screech owls hunted the deer mice and who-knows-what besides

All this in a few acres left wooded because they were too wet to plow.

This farm was an interesting microcosm of the woodlands of the Delmarva Peninsula. True, the forests did not support deer, and many other forms of wildlife were absent, but many were present and easily observable.

What micro-wilderness is hidden in your neighborhood? Take a good look, and you will almost certainly see much more than you thought you would.

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Trail Description

The Lazy Farmer's farm consisted of about seven distinct fields, not counting the vegetable garden, and the land surrounding and separating these fields was the woodland or hedgerow or wetland where the wild things lived.

Along the western edge of the farm was a narrow strip of forest between the soybeans and the suburbs. The northern boundary was an even narrower strip of trees separating this farm from a much larger corporate-owned field of soybeans that stretched to the northern horizon. The eastern boundary was lost somewhere in a wide strip of swampy forest with a muddy stream in the middle, and the southern boundary was the road.

Most of the western half of the farm was divided into four soybean fields, and part was occupied by the house, barn, and a two-acre vegetable garden. A dirt lane ran north-south from the house to the back woods between the soybean fields, and another lane ran east from the middle of the soybeans into the oat field. The eastern half was about 2/3 planted in oats. A small corner of this area was planted in feed corn for the chickens.

There was a very narrow strip, barely one tree wide, between the southern soybean field and the oat field. Between the northern and the southern soybean fields west of the lane was a small artificial pond. A weedy, brushy strip vaguely reminiscent of a hedge ran beside the east-west lane from the pond to the oat field.

North of the oat field and east of the northern soybean field was a swampy forest of about ten acres where an ill-defined stream arose and trickled off to the east. And east of the oats was an even larger, even swampier forest. Here, on the odd patch of higher ground, was where my friend and I would go camping.

Rough map of the farm

The "Lazy Farmer's" farm, as I remember it.

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Plants and Animals

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things I remember seeing there, and some of the more interesting things I saw there.

Mammals

  • Raccoon (Procyon lotor). Not uncommon, but rarely seen. They tend to run larger in Delaware than in most places.
  • Gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). The woods were full of them.
  • Opossum (Didelphis virginiana pigna). They were probably more common than raccoons, and accounted for most of the nighttime noises when we were camping on the farm.
  • Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). Most often seen in the soybeans, which I think they used more for cover than for food.

Birds

  • Bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus). Common around the edges of fields.
  • Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum). A common, noisy bird, constantly thrashing leaves in the drier forests to search for hidden insects and such.
  • Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Uncommon, but present.
  • Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii). A pair of them nested every year in the thick swampy forest.
  • Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). An occasional visitor.

Other Creatures

  • Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum). Denizens of the mud, found only in the swamp, but quite common there. You'd never see them unless you pull a couple of rotten logs out of the mud to find salamanders underneath.
  • Red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus). You'd find them under every rotting log where the soil was moist, but not damp.
  • Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana). There were a few of them in the pond, and many in the swamps.
  • Green frog (Rana clamitans). Also common everywhere there was water.
  • Pickerel frog (Rana palustris). They lived near the pond, but were mostly seen leaping ahead of you as you walked through the weeds.
  • Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Common everywhere, sometimes in large numbers together when they emerged from hibernation in mid-spring.

Trees

  • Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor). Dominant in the swampy areas.
  • White oak (Quercus alba). Dominant in most of the drier areas.
  • Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). Dominant in the driest area along the western edge of the farm, but not in the areas closer to the swamps.
  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Present in the drier areas.
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Common along the edges of woods, sometimes forming the complete width of the "boundary" wooded areas between fields. I used to make sassafras tea once in a while. Little did I know that sassafras tea was illegal as of 1960, or that it is the principle raw ingredient in making the drug "ecstasy" (which nobody had heard of in the 1970s, but it existed). Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cited studies indicating harmful effects from raw sassafras, I suspect it was banned from commerce mostly to discourage its use in producing ecstasy. I enjoyed it for the taste - like unsweetened root beer - and never noticed any pharmacological effects.

Other Plants

  • Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). Abundant in the swamps.
  • Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia). Common in all forested areas, especially the swamps, and present but not dominant in the "hedges."
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Stories

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