The Blessings are one of example of how the Kent County farming community if made up of small families, many of whom have persevered in the agricultural industry for generations.

Small farm families are a tough lot.

They have to be.

They regularly have to work in stifling heat, persevere through droughts, skirt bad economies, eke their way through bad crop yields and carry on even after tragedy and death.

“It’s working side by side with your family, and passing knowledge from generation to generation,” farmer Dale Blessing said. He works a 1,300-acre spread near Felton, his family’s 200 acres near Harrington, plus an additional 4,000 leased acres in Kent and Sussex counties, as well as Caroline County, Md.

“You have to be committed,” Blessing said. “You have to be committed to your job and you have to love it.”

The 29-year-old is the most recent generation of a family that has tilled Delmarva’s soil for more than 80 years. He and his mother, Melissa Blessing, and grandfather, Clifford Blessing, were recognized as the 2013 Kent County Farm Bureau Farm Family of the Year.

Melissa Blessing, 51, is the matriarch of the Blessing brood, having taken over the family business, Waterway Farms, after the sudden death of her husband, Ronnie, in 2006. Ronnie’s passing came less than a year after they had sold their acreage near Canterbury, and began anew near Harrington.

Melissa grew up on a dairy farm east of Dover and was serving as Farm Bureau Queen when she and Ronnie met in 1980. Ronnie already owned 115 acres, having bought that when he was 19 years old. After marrying in 1982, the couple raised four children – Dale, Julie, Lauren and Kellie – while also working the fields.

“At first, I went to work, but when we started having children, I stayed at home,” Melissa said. “The kids were raised in our tractor. I’d drive the equipment, and they’d be on pillows and in car seats with their toys in the cab.”

The family business could have ended when Ronnie died, but Dale decided that was not what his father would have wanted.

“I told Dale that he didn’t have to go on, but he said it is what he wanted to do, what he had been  raised to do, and what he and his father had done together,” Melissa said.

That was eight years ago, and while some years are good and others better, the family farm has persevered. Today, Waterway Farms is still known for its production of feed corn, soybeans, wheat and barley, as well as vegetable crops including sweet corn, peas and lima beans.

“Ronnie and I, we didn’t have a lot of extra money,” Melissa said. “But we tilled a couple of thousand acres. We enjoyed doing it and it was the time we had together.”

Keeping farms in the family is important to the Blessings.

Melissa’s father-in-law, 89-year-old Clifford Blessing started farming with his own father and brothers.

Clifford bought his farm in 1954 following his discharge from the Army, and soon was joined by Ronnie. The younger Blessing struck out on his own in 1978, and the family became even more deeply involved in Kent County agriculture.

Now retired from the state Department of Agriculture, Clifford still works his own land. Melissa, meanwhile, is a council member of the Farm Organization Committee and an advisor to the Delaware Coop Extension Committee.

In addition to running the daily farm operations, Dale is a member of the Delaware Soybean Board. Lauren and Julie work in the medical field and Kellie, who is studying plant science at the University of Delaware, was named the 2012-2013 Delaware Farm Bureau Youth Ambassador.

And as a result of improved farming methods, Dale is now harvesting almost five times the per-acre corn yield that Clifford’s father brought in.

But while technology has improved weather forecasting, plant rotation methods and the study of soil, the Blessings say it’s still the family that keeps small farms going.

“You start out each year, never knowing what it will bring, so you go in with a lot of optimism, hopes and prayers,” Melissa said. “At the end of the year, you count it all up and decide that you want to do it again.”