Family farms are backbone of Delaware agriculture

By Ed Kee
Guest Columnist

keeThe phrase “family business” evokes nostalgic images of a mom-and-pop corner grocery, a hardware store run by two brothers, or a diner where the youngsters help clear tables. It’s a Norman Rockwell type of phrase that makes us think of small towns and simpler times.

But in Delaware that phrase also refers to cornfields on the side of Route 1, to farm stands on back country roads, and to poultry houses dotting our rural landscapes. Contrary to popular misconception, Delaware’s 2,450 farms are largely family enterprises, many involving multiple generations, and will be that way for many years to come.

All but a small handful of our farms are owned or run by First State families, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. While some are legally organized as corporations for tax or legal purposes, there are only 22 farms that are nonfamily corporations — and 20 of those have 10 or fewer stockholders, indicating tightly held companies with family connections.

We are proud of this fact in Delaware, though it is nothing new. You have likely seen yellow Century Farm signs dotting our roads, honoring farms that have been owned by the same family and in operation for at least 100 years. There have been 129 such families recognized over the years, and we believe many of them will become bicentennial farms as the decades progress.

These are also small businesses, by the very definition of the term. Only 18 Delaware farms have gross sales of more than $5 million, which falls far short of the $9 million gross-sales threshold that the U.S. Small Business Administration uses to denote an agricultural “small business.” An average farmer has gross income of just over $520,000 annually; from that, she or he has to cover transportation, salaries, equipment, and supplies.

Much has been written about the graying of the American farmer. It’s true that the average “principal operator” of a Delaware farm is 58.4 years old, but that statistic is not an accurate reflection of a business that involves multiple generations. Like at the mom-and-pop corner grocery, farm family members begin with entry-level jobs and grow into the business. They often develop an ownership interest as they enter their 30s. You can see this in action at Delaware Ag Week, held every January, and attended by many people in this young and dedicated new generation.

We in Delaware have taken steps to help our younger farmers purchase land, one of the chief obstacles to getting started in this business. Our Young Farmers Loan Program has helped 25 young farmers purchase their first farm, for a total of 2,120 acres of farmland. And, because agribusiness is such a rapidly expanding career field, the next generations may also be involved off the farm, as large-animal veterinarians, farm loan officers, nutrient management consultants, logistics specialists or marketing advisers.

Family farms are the focal point of our food system and critical to helping Delaware maintain its position as a food shed for our region and nation. The crops and animals they raise in their fields and barns end up in our lunchboxes and on our kitchen tables as delicious and nutritious meals that power our country and bring our families together. Farming is hard work, to be sure, but Delaware’s family farms are more than up to the task.

Ed Kee is Delaware’s secretary of agriculture.

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