Documentary Shows 'Long and Proud’ History of Del. Farming

4/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

NEWARK, Del. — Delaware’s agriculture heritage is rich and varied. From early subsistence farming to its growth as a major producer of grain, peaches and finally poultry, that history is chronicled in a new film.

The 30-minute film, “Delaware Agriculture: Farming in the First State,” introduces viewers to the history of the state’s agricultural industry and the depth and breadth of modern-day farming.

Dozens of University of Delaware agricultural students attended a screening of the film Tuesday at the university. Following the film, a panel of local farmers and Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee took questions on a range of farm issues.

The movie features interviews with Delaware farmers and footage of their apple orchards, grain farms, poultry operations and more. Modern scenes of lima beans being harvested and apples being plucked from trees are interspersed with black-and-white photos and images from Delaware’s Agricultural Museum in Dover.

It also highlights images from the Delaware Public Archives and footage from the Historic Lewes Farmers Market and the Delaware State Fair.

“Farming in Delaware has a long and proud history, matched only by the strength and success of our farmers today,” said Kee, who narrates the film. “This documentary will help introduce Delaware residents to their farmers and neighbors next door, building awareness about the contributions and challenges of agriculture today.”

The film features farmers Stanley C. West of Milford, a lima bean grower; Jim and Janet Mitchell of Woodside Farm Creamery, Hockessin; Curt Fifer of Fifer Orchards, Camden-Wyoming; Charlie Smith of T.S. Smith and Sons, Bridgeville; Mark Collins of DMC Farms, Laurel, a watermelon grower; Charles Postles of Milford, a poultry farmer; Larry and Mike Jester of Jester Farms, grain farmers from Middletown; and Brandon and Ashley Bonk of Wheel of Fortune Farm, Leipsic.

Mitchell is the seventh generation to till his family’s land. His niece will soon become the eighth generation to work a farm that dates to 1796.

Kee told the audience that means Mitchell’s family was working the land when George Washington was president.

“We’ve been there a long time and nobody wants to be the last one,” Mitchell joked.

“It’s all about the family. We don’t have any corporate farms, per se, around here,” Collins said.

“Love it (farming) or don’t do it,” said West, adding that it is a hard life, but also a good life.

After the film, Delaware farmers discussed the future of Delaware agriculture in a panel moderated by Kee, joined by Mark Rieger, dean of the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Panelists were Jim Mitchell and Larry Jester, and Dover poultry producer Georgiana Cartanza.

While the film was the focus of the evening, the panel discussion touched on several important issues to farmers. Members were asked about the idea that the public is increasingly disconnected from the family farm.

Mitchell said Woodside Creamery is a working 75-acre farm, but they consider education to be one of their most important jobs.

“We try to be good advocates of agriculture ... We answer a lot of questions.”

With development hemming in the small farm on four sides and a road running through the property, he said, “We feel like we live in a fishbowl.”

Jester said it can be difficult farming next to development because residents often don’t understand what they are doing. He said it becomes easier when people realize that without farmers, the land is likely to be developed and open space will be lost.

“It can be a challenge. It can be tough,” he said. “We try to be good neighbors. We try to do things like plow snow.”

Kee made a point of telling the audience, much of it students, that there are opportunities in agriculture. “I wish I were in your seats. I really do,” said Kee.

“There’s a lot of opportunities out there,” said Jester. “It’s a great life. Like the one guy (Stanley West) said, you have to love it.”

Rieger said there are more agricultural jobs now being created than there are agriculture students graduating from college. Many of those jobs are not working on the family farm, but are running an office, representing a seed company, working in sales or filling orders, Rieger said.

Still, Kee has concerns about the future.

“I have four grandchildren ... and I worry about where they will source their food,” he said. “I hope they can buy Delaware peaches and sweet corn.”

Farmers also touched on the changing role of technology in farming. “If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be a computer on the farm,” said Mitchell. He quickly added that technology makes farming easier and plays a major role in the operation of his creamery.

Jester said they don’t use new technology like autosteering on farm equipment because they like gadgets, but because “it does it quicker, easier and better.”

Postles said new technology means he can operate four poultry houses with some 120,000 birds with a work force that consists primarily of “me, myself and I.”

Kee said plans call for the film to be distributed to schools and shown at farm organizations as well as being aired on public television.

The film was created and produced by Wilmington-based TELEDUCTION and its nonprofit initiative, Hearts and Minds Film. The Delaware Farm Bureau and MidAtlantic Farm Credit also provided support.

For more information about the film, visit the Delaware Department of Agriculture website, http://dda.delaware.gov/.


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