Delaware Ag Secretary Explores the State’s Ag History

2/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

DOVER, Del. — Delaware was once considered “the northern peach state.”

Residents of Delaware may think agriculture consists of corn, soybeans and poultry farms, with a sprinkling of watermelon fields and fruit orchards. But the face of agriculture in Delaware has never remained constant for very long.

Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee spoke recently about the changing face of Delaware agriculture over the centuries. In many ways, it is the story not just of agriculture, but of the state itself.

A packed audience came to hear Kee speak about trends beginning with the earliest Colonial farmers.

He told the audience at the Osher Lifelong Learning Center at Dover’s Modern Maturity Center that Delaware was once a major wheat growing state and a major peach producer.

He has said in other lectures that George Washington actually urged Delaware farmers to hide their millstones from the British so that the milling industry could not be decimated by British soldiers.

After the Colonial days of wheat production, the state began turning its attention to the canning industry in the 1800s. The canning industry began in Maryland with the canning of oysters, but canneries soon turned their attention to fruits and vegetables grown in Delaware.

The oldest Delaware cannery, the Richardson-Robbins, now houses the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control in Dover. At one time, there were 71 canneries lining the state.

The rise of the poultry industry followed when an Ocean View, Del., farmer ordered 50 chicks for egg production and received 500 by mistake. She decided to raise the rest of the chickens for 16 weeks and was able to sell them to local restaurants and markets for 63 cents per pound.

“The word spread like wildfire,” Kee said. “In 1923, 63 cents was real money.”

That mistake at Mrs. Steele’s Ocean View farm was the unofficial beginning of the broiler industry, Kee said.

More recently, the horse industry has rebounded in Delaware. The industry was in dire straits, but the growth of Delaware’s casinos has pumped millions into the industry. The legislation that allowed slot machines in the state specified that gambling would only be allowed at Delaware Park, Dover Downs, Harrington Raceway or other horse racing venues.

The idea was to save a dwindling industry, and it worked, according to Kee. Since then, other states such as Maryland and Pennsylvania have built a number of competing casinos and are vying for those gambling dollars.

Still, Delaware farms have about 800 thoroughbreds and another 3,000 harness or standardbred horses. That is enough to pump some $80 million a year into Delaware’s farming economy, Kee said.

Technology was slowly adopted by the state’s farmers. Kee said it was only until 1954 when tractors started outnumbering horses and mules on the state’s farms.

A record-setting 166 bushels per acre of corn were grown last year in Delaware, and robotics is beginning to take hold in the poultry industry. By contrast, Kee said the state’s farmers grew between 33 and 75 bushels of corn per acre until 1966.

Much of the success of the state’s agriculture, he said, is tied to “mechanization over the years.”

Now, Kee said farmers markets are one of many reasons the future is bright for Delaware farmers. There are 26 farmers markets throughout the state and every school district in the state buys produce from local Delaware farmers, he said. Farmers markets had $2.1 million in sales last year and supermarkets such as ShopRite are beginning to buy and sell local Delaware produce.

“We should think of our agriculture industry as a foodshed for the Eastern United States,” he said.

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