Q&A with Austin Short, deputy secretary of agriculture.
Farming is an underestimated profession.
“Often, for better or worse, people think of the stereotypical farmer—the Old McDonald guy with the overalls driving a 1950’s tractor,” Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Austin Short said. “And that’s just not the case today.”
Farmers today use GPS and cell phones and the latest technologies to keep crop yields high. With shrinking agricultural acreage, they need to do more with less.
Agriculture’s importance to Delaware’s economy is unchanged. There were 2,500 farms covering 500,000 acres, as of 2013, according to agriculture officials, worth $1 billion in direct sales per year.
Although Short says the industry has challenges, he’s confident it’ll continue its key role.
Q Is there anything about Delaware in that the average person isn’t aware of?
A These aren’t corporate farms. These are family farms. They are often third- or fourth-generation, passed down through the family. They have made significant investments in their operations, often millions of dollars, to buy land and to buy machinery and purchase irrigation technology.
People need to understand agriculture is the backbone of Delaware. We need to make sure that we do what we can so farming is still around for our children and our great grandchildren.
Q The land available to farmers is declining. How is this affecting agriculture in Delaware?
A It certainly has an impact. We have roughly 500,000 acres today in farms and that’s significantly less than it used to be 50 years ago.
One of the things the state wants to achieve is maintaining a sufficient amount of farmland. Right now, I’ll say we’re fine. We have a thriving industry, but we want to try and avoid reaching the point where we slowly erode the amount of farmland to the point where it’s no longer sustainable.
Q What are the significant challenges farmers face today?
A Crop prices today aren’t determined locally. They are determined nationally and globally. From a grain standpoint, there’s an oversupply worldwide, so you see reduced prices for your major commodities such as corn, soybeans and wheat.
I think the biggest challenge to a young farmer or anyone trying to enter the industry is the cost of acquiring land. As [the amount] of land dwindles, the price of land goes up, as with any commodity when there’s less of it and people still want it.
Q What impact has technology had on farmers?
A I think technology has played a very significant role in Delaware agriculture over the last few decades and I envision that continuing into the future.
You might not think of genetics as technology, but improving genetics to have better yields – that leads to plants that can withstand droughts more, extreme temperature and pests.
We produce more corn now than we ever have, even though we have less land. This is because we’ve offset the reduction in land by the significant increases in yields on the remaining acres.
Q What needs to happen for agriculture to have a successful 2016?
A It would be nice if grain prices could moderate and improve a little bit so that it would help their bottom line. We can continue to help to make sure they’re a variety of markets out there available to farmers.