Program Enables Young Farmers to Live Their Dream

1/11/2014 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

DOVER, Del. — Josh Wharton finishes his late shift at 8 a.m.

Like many farmers, he works off the farm to put food on the table and pay the bills.

He snatches a couple of hours of rest and then goes to work on his farm near Millsboro, Del. Wharton, 33, has followed in the footsteps of his father, uncle and grandfather, all of them farmers.

“It is everybody’s dream to have a little piece of land,” Wharton said.

But Wharton has an advantage many young farmers lack. He is one of the participants in Delaware’s Young Farmer Program, a program which provides no-interest loans to help farmers buy land.

Ten new farmers, some as young as age 22, took part in the most recent round of the program in November. In its two years of existence, a total of 20 young farmers have qualified for the no-interest loans.

“The high cost of purchasing land to get into farming turns many young people away, but this program can help solve that dilemma,” said Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee. “This innovative program represents our firm commitment to supporting their dreams . . . ”

“Our farming heritage is strong and proud in Delaware, and it will continue that way because of the hard work of the next generation and the investments we make in agribusiness today,” said Gov. Jack Markell.

Eligible farmers must be between the ages of 18 and 40, have at least three years of farming experience and a net worth of no more than $300,000. The loan money is used to help purchase farmland in Delaware that contains at least 15 tillable acres zoned for agricultural use.

Farmers must actively use the land for agricultural purposes for the term of the loans. The 30-year, no-interest loans may fund up to 70 percent of the value of the property’s development rights, defined as the difference between full market value and agricultural value, up to a maximum of $500,000.

The young farmers were honored in a ceremony in November at Delaware’s Agriculture Museum in Dover. Kee praised the program as one of the ways Delaware has been able to keep so much of its farmland under the plow.

Delaware has managed to preserve 111,000 acres of farmland in perpetuity, which is about 22 percent of the estimated 500,000 acres of farmland in the state, he said.

This year’s class includes: Robbie Emerson, 24, Middletown; Matt and Bobbi Jo Webber, 34, Clayton; Toby Otwell, 33, Laurel; Doug Walsh, 35, Laurel; Cory Atkins, 26, Seaford; Cody Vanderwende, 22, Bridgeville; Sam Melson, 22, Bridgeville; Ryan Swartzentruber, 29, Greenwood; Josh and Kathryn Wharton, 33, Millsboro; and Clint Moore III, 39, Millsboro.

The average age of a Delaware farmer is 55. The average age of this year’s Young Farmer participant is 30.

“It’s been a tremendous help,” said Robbie Emerson. “Without the program, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“This is all I’ve ever known,” Wharton said. “It is a chance to do what I love.”

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