Agriculture — from farming to food production — has long been a mainstay of Delaware’s economy. It’s the state’s single largest land use, with just under 40 percent of land devoted to agricultural production. And thanks to support from Delaware’s solid research infrastructure, both at the corporate and university level, First State farmers benefit from the latest innovative advances in seeding, insect management and yield improvement.
To name just one example, researchers at the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources have created and patented a beneficial microbe designed to protect seedlings — it’s now used in a new biofungicide sold by chemical giant BASF. Meanwhile, Delaware State University’s College of Agriculture & Related Sciences is exploring new techniques for pest management and runoff control.
DuPont has long been a major player in agricultural research, and following the merger with The Dow Chemical Company, its agricultural business will remain in Delaware under the name Corteva Agriscience. DuPont’s work in plant breeding has for years allowed farmers in Delaware and beyond to select the most desirable characteristics for crops and improve yields.
Much of Delaware’s farmland is dedicated to commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat — largely in support of the poultry industry. Big poultry producers like Perdue Farms and Allen Harim Foods continue to be at the forefront of an industry-wide innovation trend: moving to antibiotic-free practices. Recently, both of those firms have also been investing in their local operations. Perdue, which has 6,000 employees in Delaware, made infrastructure improvements at its Milford and Georgetown harvest plants; Allen Harim is building a new hatchery in Dagsboro, has expanded operations at its processing facility in Harbeson and plans to move its headquarters to Millsboro.
In 2017, Wisconsin-based Proximity Malt opened a Delaware plant in Laurel, bringing to the First State its cutting-edge approach to shortening industry supply chains. The company relies on Delaware’s farmers to supply it with ingredients such as barley, which Proximity then passes on in malted form to the state’s burgeoning craft-brewing industry.
Meanwhile, Merck Animal Health in Millsboro keeps its 300 employees — including microbiologists, biologists, animal scientists, chemists, engineers and mechanics — busy around the clock, producing vaccines and other pharmaceutical products for the husbandry industry. And the Produce Marketing Association, with its 55 employees in Newark, supports its members’ innovative use of robotics and other technologies to address industry problems such as labor shortages and food safety issues.
1. As consumer trends continue to shift, the food production business in Delaware is following suit. James Waddington, director at the Kent County Economic Partnership notes: “There’s this whole thing going on in the food industry that is requiring site development. Ten years ago, nobody knew what gluten-free was. All of a sudden, we have gluten-free bakeries. I’ve seen site selection inquiries for gluten-free production facilities. As our food needs change, as our packaging needs change, the food industry here tends to be a dynamic force in site selection efforts.”
2. Big poultry producers are continuing the migration to antibiotic-free operations. The change is affecting production from egg to market, and it means new approaches from ancillary businesses, such as feed firms and animal health companies; it’s requiring, says Merck’s Regina Holzbauer, “a different kind of husbandry.”
3. Delaware’s 2,500 farm families own about 90 percent of the farms in the state. And plenty of farmers are now opening their gates to the public and offering agritourism experiences. Delaware has zoos, orchards, Christmas tree farms, haunted hayrides and more. The First State is also home to a number of wineries and distilleries; it hosts thoroughbred, standard-bred and harness horse races; and it boasts Community Supported Agriculture Programs (CSAs), creameries, farmers’ markets, garden centers and farm stands.
To learn more, visit the Delaware Department of Agriculture.
Delaware Agriculture at a Glance
• Delaware has 2,451 farms across 510,250 acres, and over $1 billion in annual economic impact from agriculture.
• The state’s 21 community-run farmers’ markets boasted $3 million dollars in sales last year, their second-highest total ever.
• Delaware produced more than 8 million bushels of soybeans in 2017.
• Corn, according to FarmFlavor.com, is the state’s main crop. Broilers (chickens raised for meat) are the
most valuable agricultural product, and apples are the leading fruit crop.