Delaware Ag Week big on attendance and state’s global future

Delaware Ag Week big on attendance and state's global futureThe 11th annual Delaware Agriculture Week concluded Jan. 14 after a four-day run, with Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee calling the event “the biggest Ag Week ever.”

The event, held at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington, is co-sponsored by the University of Delaware, the Delaware Department of Agriculture and Delaware State University.

The final day wrapped up an intensive schedule that offered a wide array of sessions reflective of the First State’s broad agriculture output.

It also included a visit from Gov. Jack Markell, who expressed gratitude to those involved with the industry for “making Delaware agriculture so strong.”

Markell praised local farmers for meeting environmental challenges. “We know very well farmers are really our first environmentalists,” Markell said, referring to the Delaware Nutrient Management Program, which began during the administration of then-governor Thomas R. Carper.

“Collectively you have done a lot of important work in this area over the last couple of decades. It has an impact in Delaware and impact more broadly in the Chesapeake Bay region,” Markell said. “Some of the numbers we’re seeing certainly reflect the progress that has been made. We are particularly grateful to you for how you are handling your nutrients more efficiently and for being good stewards of our land and water.”

Markell joined Kee in recognizing Delaware’s newest Century Farm, owned and operated by Robert C. Thompson of Hartley. The Century Farm program honors families who have farmed the same land for 100 or more years.

The Jan. 14 session also included a panel discussion on successes and challenges of agricultural production that featured Kee; his predecessor, Michael Scuse, who is now serving as under secretary of agriculture for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); Douglas Fisher, New Jersey secretary of agriculture; Steve Connelly, Maryland assistant secretary of agriculture; and Hamish Gow, agriculture professor at Massey University in New Zealand, who provided insight on emerging global opportunities for Delaware farmers.

An 11-year tradition reaps a large following

Farmers from Delaware and neighboring states view Delaware Ag Week as a valuable tradition. As co-sponsors, the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA), UD and DSU assure that the topics and speakers are timely, research-based, and reflect changing regulations and innovations.

“We try to assure our sessions offer new and timely information. Presenting new and different research is key to keeping Ag Week relevant and offering something different to farmers each year,” said James Adkins, an irrigation specialist for UD Cooperative Extension and a member of Delaware Ag Week’s planning committee.

Twenty agriculture experts from UD joined partners from DSU and DDA, and invited guest experts to present on a variety of topics and emerging issues of interest to agriculture stakeholders.

Sessions covered commercial and backyard flock poultry, beef cattle, small ruminants, and equine topics, as well as hay and pasture, woodland management, processing fruits and vegetables, fresh market fruits and vegetables, wheat quality, marketing, urban gardening and food production, and risk management.

Richard Wilkins, a third-generation grain farmer and vegetable producer, has attended Delaware Ag Week since the beginning and sees the event as an opportunity to keep abreast of best practices.

“In food production systems today, farmers are employing the most modern technology, the best science available in order to provide consumers with safe, abundant and nutritious amounts of food,” said Wilkins.

The sessions meet farmers’ need to know the many different productions practices in place today in order to appeal to specific consumer tastes.

Wilkins, citing his travels abroad, said that the “Cooperative Extension System in this state is part of what has made our agriculture system the most efficient role model for countries around the world. Their farmers look to Cooperative Extension as a role model for how to improve food production and standards.”

Bob Voorhees, a retired dairyman who currently produces hay and small grains four miles outside Harrington and also rescues horses, attended all four days and said he values the networking and learning opportunities the event provides. “The biggest thing is keeping up on the trends and updates on the amount of government regulations coming down the pike,” he said.

George Whitehead and his wife Lynda, small cattle farmers from Townsend, attended sessions on pasture, forage and beef cattle, and sought out the risk management session on farm succession in particular.

Whitehead estimates he’s attended Delaware Ag Week for at least nine years, and over that time has learned how things can be improved on his farm.

With a son, daughter-in-law and grandson involved in the family farm on a daily basis, Whitehead said he was keen to hear advice from experts on preserving his farm for future generations, specifically in the risk management and farm succession planning sessions on Wednesday.

“This session was very eye opening,” he said.

Referencing a session on estate planning, Whitehead learned an important distinction between the definition of “fair” and “equal” as they refer to matters of estate inheritance. “They’re not the same thing. This session tonight requires me to reevaluate my plan. We intend to proceed with what we learned here today,” he said.

Whitehead learned about the session from Dan Severson, New Castle County Extension agent. “He’s been super in helping us and our farm operation,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead said his relationship with Extension has made all the difference in his farm operation. He advises fellow farmers to take the time to become acquainted with their Extension agent.

“The benefit to a small mom and pop farm like ours is just absolutely, well, you can’t go out and buy it. The dedication of Extension folks is just unbelievable. They are always there to help. They’re just super,” said Whitehead.

Presenting big ideas

In one of the sessions, Gow elaborated on the opportunity for Delaware farmers to understand their role in a rapidly changing global market. Trends indicate a global demographic shift to Asia, Gow said, adding that the fastest growing middle-class consumer sector is in Asia and the key to capturing that market is understanding consumer attitudes and preferences.

Gow said that 62 percent of Chinese consumers share their food experience on social networks. “Big Brother today is the consumer, and they are watching you wherever you are,” said Gow.

Holding up his smart phone, Gow said mobile devices now transform farm operations. Farmers need to connect what they are doing on the farm with the rest of the world and to those interested in buying farm products and learning more about the farm.

In New Zealand, Gow works with a clothing manufacturer aware of a consumer’s need for connection. Labels include a scannable code where the consumer can see where the wool on a shirt or sweater came from and learn about that particular farm.

Global interest in American agricultural is high, Gow said, but foreign markets are tuned into authenticity and ethics.

“Delaware has a huge opportunity to be a global local farmer,” Gow said.

Wayne Carmean, a corn and soybean farmer from Millsboro, hasn’t missed an Ag Week in 11 years, said that he found what Gow had to say about the preferences of the global consumers “very interesting.”

Article and photos by Michele Walfred

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