Advantages and challenges of growing in the Chesapeake Bay

Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Edwin Kee.
Photo Courtesy of The Office of the Delaware Secretary of Agriculture.

Growers in Delaware have a surprising advantage over growers in other states. Despite its proximity to our nation’s capital and other major urban areas, the state maintains 42 percent of its landmass (about 500,000 acres) in farms. Of that, 50,000 acres is devoted to the vegetable industry, which includes produce for fresh market and processing. Agriculture is among the top three economic drivers of the state, which also include finance and chemicals, and ag sales are around $1.25 billion per year.

Delaware’s secretary of agriculture, Edwin Kee, utilizes his background as former manager of a 500-acre vegetable and fruit farm and extension vegetable crop specialist at the University of Delaware, as well as experience working at a commercial-scale vegetable processor, to support Delaware’s farmers. He was appointed to his current position in early 2009.

What are the benefits of growing in Delaware?

I see Delaware as a great place to produce food because we have these physical characteristics in the middle of this population base. We have lighter sandy loam soils that are good for vegetables, and we have a tremendous irrigation resource, underground aquifers. Perhaps the biggest advantage we have is Delaware is located within an eight-hour drive of one-third of our nation’s population. We’re in the middle of all these consumers that need to eat, so our proximity to markets is incredible. For over 100 years, Delaware farmers have been shipping fresh and processed produce to consumers up and down the Eastern Seaboard, so it’s part of our tradition as well. Forty percent of the vegetables are sold fresh and 60 percent go to the processing plants.

Are there industry trends affecting Delaware’s produce industry?

On the negative side is the increasing regulation from EPA as it applies to nutrient management in the whole Chesapeake Bay ecosystem restoration. The issue is nutrients, not only from agriculture, but also from municipal sources, suburban storm-water runoff, and sewage treatment plants, get into the bay and the nitrogen and phosphorus stimulate the algae and other species that flourish, then eat up the oxygen, creating oxygen dead zones.

We are very concerned that those regulations will drive up the cost of doing business across all of agriculture, including those in the produce industry. We try to make sure the regulations are fair and balanced.

On the positive side, the interest in buying local is really increasing, and when I say that I’m not only speaking of the local farm markets and community farmers’ markets, I’m also thinking of the programs and promotional campaigns that chain stores are making, buying fresh in-season produce from our local growers at significant quantities. Some of our chain stores are really promoting the fact that some of their produce is grown locally, even having photos and bios of local farmers. The local thing is really good on a micro-scale, but is starting to have impact on a macro-scale.

Can Delaware’s farmers afford to sell to chain stores that pay the farmer less per pound than they could get at a farmers’ market?

We have large commercial farms that are very efficient in growing and shipping larger quantities. There’s always that negotiation which sometimes turns into a battle over price, but I can assure you our growers are more than happy to have more opportunities to interact with chain stores because chain stores can move a lot of produce. We have growers that ship from 10 to 25 tractor-trailer loads of produce every day from June to September. Some farms are 2,000, some are 300 or 400 acres. A big watermelon grower may only have 200 acres, but for that three to four-week harvest period, he may have 10 to 20 trailer loads a day. We have 30-acre growers, too, that do a great job selling to local grocery stores. We also have a resort industry on the coast that handles a lot of product for tourists on vacation, so our growers sell to the resorts. We have a real mix from 5 to 10-acre growers that sell produce in a community farmers’ market to some of these large commercial shippers.

How does diversity affect Delaware’s produce industry?

People from all different groups tend to buy produce. We do not have a specific ethnic market, like certain types of peppers for Hispanics or certain types of Asian vegetables for that population. That hasn’t emerged in Delaware.

Are there any organizations that help growers or distributors?

The Delaware Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association sponsors educational meetings in association with the extension program from the University of Delaware. The organization also works with Delaware Department of Ag on some marketing and promotional programs.

The Mar-Del Watermelon Grower’s Association, which covers two states, has a heavier emphasis on promotion of their watermelon crop going into harvest season. They do television, radio and print advertising to try to stimulate interest.

How big are organics in Delaware?

We have 14 acres of organics in production, according to the last census. Really, there might be 50, but it’s not a lot. There’s no demand for it, no burning interest in it. Really, it’s a function of the market.

Are there certain issues that prevent the majority of growers from successfully using organic methods?

It’s problematic in our hot, humid region to keep plant diseases out, fungus diseases specifically. Pretty much all fungus diseases thrive in high-humidity, warm growing conditions, and we have that. It’s way different than California, where the relative humidity might be 30 or 40 percent; we have 80 percent or 90 percent or 95 percent. Our conditions foster those diseases, so it’s difficult to control organically on any large scale. A person can take care of 20 tomato plants, but on a commercial scale, it’s very difficult.

What have you done to help?

In a nonorganic setting, in my career at University of Delaware, we were evaluating plant pesticides, developing recommendations, testing them, developing strategies on how to use them in an integrated pest management [system], so you don’t spray unless you know there’s a problem or the conditions are setting the stage for an outbreak. Historically, our department [has worked with] the university and others.

Every year, we cooperate with the cooperative extension at the university to create a series of educational meetings for farmers. Their subject matter specialists provide the updates and new info for growers to take home and use. There’s a wonderful annual publication of recommendations for each of our vegetable crops that gets distributed to every grower. It’s a reference on all the pesticides, what varieties to plant and other cultural practices like plasticulture and greenhouse production. It’s kind of known as the bible around here.

Are any of the varietal recommendations for GMO products?

Probably 80 percent of the acreage for corn and soybeans is GMO products; Roundup ready or BT. I think the first GMO soy was used in 1996, and within two or three years, a huge percentage of the crop was GMOs. The corn has probably been seven or eight years.

What results have your growers seen since switching to GMO?

It has been a boom: better yields, less inputs, less environmental impact, because fewer pesticides are put into the environment.

What are Delaware’s top commodities for fresh market?

For fresh market: watermelon, sweet corn, green beans, cabbage, tomatoes and peppers, all kinds of squash. For processing: baby lima beans for freezing (last year about 17,000 acres), peas, sweet corn, green beans, spinach and pickling cucumbers.

What are the main challenges affecting the area?

The economy here is very tough. Unemployment is just under 10 percent, probably not as bad as some other places, but still pretty tough. Labor can be a significant issue at the farm level and at the processing factory level. Finding enough people to work, even in this economy, even with high unemployment, the turnover can be pretty high.

Are labor issues affecting acreage planted?

There are individual frustrations, where one grower may stop growing a particular crop, but then someone else picks it up, so on an industry level the answer is no.

Why is labor and turnover such an issue in Delaware?

Some of the labor is migrant seasonal labor, so they’re always moving on. Even full-time employees out on the farm, and I don’t know that this is unique to Delaware, but sometimes it’s hard for a farming operation to compete against a job in town with air-conditioned working environments and all of that. That’s part of it.

What is the Department of Ag doing to help?

Our whole state government is committed to three things:

1. A smaller, more efficient government; our government is getting smaller.

2. To help create jobs.

3. A world-class education program. Companies tend not to come to a state with a mediocre education system.

Ag works closely with all those companies that make the market. We talk to the processors, talk to the chain stores to find out what we can do to help them function. We ask if there are state programs that can help a processor retrofit or get some tax benefits to help create jobs. We’re very close to the distribution side to make sure we have the programs that will help them, whether it’s tax incentives or grants or low-interest loans to help a processor update or upgrade his plant. We do promotional work; we try to connect sellers (farmers or processors) to consumers, but also to buyers from chain stores and elsewhere. We also are instituting a plan to certify our growers in good agricultural and good handling practices, because our chain stores and farmers’ markets have told us their customers appreciate certification or recognition that farmers are paying attention to the details, so there is safe food coming through the channels.

Where do you see the region in a year or two?

I think our produce industry is strong; it’s here to stay. It’s been here for over 100 years, and because of our proximity to markets, if we can maintain that good land base in agriculture, it’ll be OK.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.