Just as any industry must adjust to the fabric of a new generation and changes in consumer demands, Delaware farms are achieving success through adaptation.
The number of farms in the first state is on the decline, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service which, in the most recent data available, reports a total of 2,500 Delaware farms in 2011 compared to 2,550 in 2007. Also, the average size of a Delaware farm in 2011 was 196 acres, compared to 200 acres in 2007.
The impetus of this decline, according to state Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee, can be attributed to a number of factors, with the most prominent being loss to development.
“It’s mostly due to farms being sold to be developed for housing,” Kee said, adding another factor is farmers opting to rent from landowners rather than purchase property. “Each one of those operations is a combination of owned land and rented land.”
Kee also said there are a number of small farms whose owners are doing more with less.
“Some of them are specialized as small vegetable producers and are growing a higher value crop, like soybeans,” he said. “Many of them are farmers with a small land mass, but may have up to five chicken houses with up to 150,000 chickens on the property.”
Gordon Johnson, fruit and vegetable specialist with the University of Delaware’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, also said there are more small farms in Delaware and added that many farms are getting larger due to consolidation.
“What we’re really losing are mid-sized farms,” Johnson said. “Larger farms are getting larger and smaller farms are cropping up.”
Charlie Smith of the Bridgeville-based T.S. Smith & Sons is a fourth generation farmer. His great grandfather, T.S. Smith, built their farm in 1907. Smith said in his lifetime of farming, the biggest change he’s noticed is a heavier reliance on technology and an increase in environmental awareness.
“There is more precision harvesting and more precision application of fertilizer and pesticides,” Smith said. “I think the whole industry is more environmentally conscious, being more aware of runoff and the use of conservation practices.”
Levin Vansant of the Felton-based Paradise Orchards has been in business for 22 years. He said he’s really noticed an increase in health conscious consumers.
“Nothing against the big stores, but people don’t want to go to a larger super market to buy something that was picked two weeks ago,” Vansant said. “It seems as time goes on and people become more educated, they become more concerned with what they’re putting in their bodies.”
Page 2 of 3 - Delaware’s big sellers
The most valuable Delaware farm product, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, has for many years been broiler chickens. The state’s mammoth poultry industry is mostly concentrated in Kent and Sussex counties, with a small number of producers in New Castle County. Kee said every year since the 1940s, Sussex has beat out every county in the U.S. in broiler production. In 2011, Delaware as a whole produced 246 million broiler chickens valued at about $735 million.
Corn for grain, sold to poultry companies to make chicken feed, is also an agricultural giant in Delaware. In 2011, farmers in the first state harvested 185,000 acres of corn for grain, valued at about $87.1 million.
“Corn for grain is our most valuable and most widely planted crop,” Kee said, adding because soybeans are another ingredient in chicken feed, it is also very valuable. “In Delaware, we plant about 400,000 acres of corn and soybeans, and we only have a total of 490,000 acres of farmland. That’s how dominant corn and soybeans are in Delaware.”
In 2011, Delaware farmers harvested 155,000 acres of soybeans valued at about $46.3 million.
Among fresh market crops that are sold for direct consumption, rather than shipped to a factory for processing, sweet corn and watermelon are Delaware’s most popular and most profitable products.
“The two are neck-in-neck but in some years watermelons generate more revenue than fresh market sweet corn,” Kee said, adding Delaware’s watermelon harvest season lasts longer than any other state’s season. “Laurel is a major national shipping point from the end of July through August and early September. It’s an important industry.”
In 2011, Delaware farmers harvested 2,700 acres of watermelons valued at about $9.1 million. Sweet corn did, in fact, come in a bit lower than watermelons, as farmers harvested 3,200 acres valued at $8 million.
Consumer demand for more fresh and local food has spawned a “farm-to-fork” movement, which in turn has greatly increased the number of farmers’ markets cropping up across the state.
According to the Delaware Department of Agriculture, there are 28 farmers’ markets operating throughout the state this season, compared to just 10 in 2007.
“The markets have been a nice outlet for small and medium farmers to bring their produce directly to the consumers,” Kee said. “It’s all part of consumers believing fresh is healthier. Obviously, vegetables and fruits are healthier than Twinkies and Oreos.”
Johnson said the “farm to fork” movement has helped a number of farm families in Delaware to increase or stabilize their income.
Page 3 of 3 - “It gets food on people’s minds,” he said. “From an economic standpoint, it’s a small amount of money; but from a societal standpoint, it’s a big deal.”
Johnson added that a lot of farmers are also ramping up their direct marketing efforts, which means more farmers are connecting with consumers on a personal level.
T.S. Smith & Sons is a prime example, as they set up shop at four different farmers’ markets each week, run a permanent shop on their Bridgeville farm and are now launching a “U Pick” campaign, which will run every weekend throughout the season, beginning with peaches and nectarines.