From its history as a peach-producing state to its current status as a major producer of poultry, soy and lima beans, Delaware always has been an agriculture state.
From its history as a peach-producing state to its current status as a major producer of poultry, soy and lima beans, Delaware always has been an agriculture state. Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee recently talked us about how the industry still matters in the First State and where it’s headed in the future.
Q What is the current state of the agriculture industry in Delaware?
A I think the state of agriculture today is really quite good. We have good commodity prices, so the state of agriculture right now is probably as good as it’s ever been. Farmers have invested in irrigation – almost 30 percent of crops in Delaware are irrigated – and that really helps maintain good yields. The infrastructure is good and there is government policy that allows agriculture to thrive and function at the state level. The main asset is the farmers. They’re just talented, hardworking, smart people.
Q Why is agriculture important in Delaware?
A Agriculture and farming generates food and what we generate in the Delaware food shed is producing healthy, good food for not only Delawareans, but people throughout the country and, in particular, on the East Coast. Secondly, agriculture preserves open space and quality of life. We have farms that maintain open space, rather than having development and sprawl all over place. Economically, agriculture in Delaware creates 20,000 to 25,000 jobs and generates a lot of revenue. The value of what farms produce is about $1.2 billion in crops and livestock. That $1.2 billion is multiplied through the economic activity of farmers buying supplies .That amounts to about $8 billion of economic activity each year. Producing food, preserving the environment and generating economic activity are three really good reasons for the non-farm public to care about agriculture in Delaware.
Q Historically, how has agriculture impacted Delaware?
A Delaware has a great history. I was born in 1951. At that point, there were 800,000 acres of farmland in Delaware and about 7,000 farmers. Now there are 2,500 farmers and about 500,000 acres. In 60 years, we’ve lost farmland and we’ve lost farmers, but it’s still strong. Delaware was historically known as great fruit-producing state with a lot of peaches and apples. In the 19th and early 20th century, at one point, Kent County had more apple trees per square mile than any other county in the country. In the 20s and 30s, we used to ship up and down East Coast. Perhaps the biggest historic event in Delaware was in 1923. Mrs. Wilmer Steel of Ocean View ordered 50 chicks for her backyard flock and the hatchery sent 500. She kept them, raised them and sold them as broilers in 16 weeks for 63 cents a pound. That was the beginning of our poultry industry.
The history of Delaware agriculture is a history of change. It’s also a history of evolution into new enterprises and the credit goes to farmers. There used to be a lot of canneries that were canning tomatoes and lima beans. That changed and today there are three vegetable processors in the state. They freeze lima beans. They don’t can for commercial sale. Delaware is the number one producer of frozen lima beans in the country. A lot of the legacy of those histories is very much intact today.
Q What do you see in the future for agriculture in Delaware?
A I think agriculture has a bright future in Delaware for several reasons. Number one, the great farmers do a good job of farming profitably, but in an environmentally-sound way. And 40 percent of the land mass in Delaware is in farms. That’s a pretty good nucleus for the future of agriculture. Also, we have some policies at the state level that support agriculture. One is the ag lands preservation [program] and another is the nutrient management program, which involves meeting environmental needs and the growing of good croups by managing nutrients. I think, for those few reasons, the future is good, but it really starts with the farmer.