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Outgoing Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee Reflects on Ag Week, time at Cooperative Extension

Outgoing Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee reflects on Ag Week, time at Cooperative ExtensionDelaware Agriculture Week finished on a high note when the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition (DUFFC) recognized outgoing State Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee for his strong advocacy of urban agriculture during a session held Thursday, Jan. 12, at the Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington.

“Through Secretary Kee’s efforts and leadership, microgrants and seed money have helped many gardens and urban farms establish themselves and grow,” said Faith Kuehn, plant industries administrator at the Delaware Department of Agriculture and member of the DUFFC planning committee. “With his drive to develop Delaware’s next generation of farmers and consumers, he has helped us find ways to bring agriculture to urban schools, community centers, churches and a wide variety of other settings where kids and youth can learn about how wholesome and healthy food grows.”

Kee said that the award was meaningful for many reasons.

In my first two weeks on the job, the Delaware Center for Horticulture came to me to explain the work they were doing. My mother grew up on Clayton Street, so I certainly had an affinity for Wilmington, and my goal has been to connect southern Delaware produce to bring it in to Wilmington. Maybe I was a catalyst, maybe I was a spark, but you, [the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition], was the fuel, and were ready to make things happen. I am really proud of the work you are doing. I am proud — humble — that one of my legacies is the expansion of urban agriculture.”

This recognition caps Kee’s stellar career in the agriculture industry that began at the University of Delaware, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1973 and a master’s degree in plant science in 1975. He returned to obtain a master of arts in liberal studies in 1996.

Kee retained close ties to the University in several capacities. He joined UD’s Cooperative Extension Service, where he had a 30-year tenure, as the Kent County agricultural agent, the state vegetable crop specialist for UD, and as the agricultural program leader.

A national and international expert in vegetable science, he taught plant science classes and authored books such as Delaware Farming, which recounts the agricultural heritage of the First State and is often found on office shelves at UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR).

“Ed Kee has been a tremendous supporter and friend of UD throughout his career,” said CANR Dean Mark Rieger. “UD and our college are extremely grateful for Ed’s generosity and leadership in funding efforts. It was our privilege for the Ag Alumni Association to honor Ed with the 1996 George M. Worrilow Award, which recognizes outstanding service to agriculture by a graduate of the college. We’re also grateful for his establishment of the Ed Kee Endowed Scholarship Fund that enables graduates of Delaware high schools to study agriculture at UD.

“Kee was elected to the UD Wall of Fame in 2013 and it’s a great legacy for our college as we educate future leaders in our industry who will grapple with critical issues affecting food production and natural resources throughout the world.”

As another lasting accomplishment, Kee co-launched Delaware Agriculture Week in 2005 to consolidate a number of agriculture meetings held during winter months.

“Doing so made it easier for the attendees, the supporters and exhibitors, and for the UD staff because now it all happens in one week,” Kee said. “I was the Extension ag program leader at the time and, working with Delaware State University and the Delaware Department of Agriculture, we pulled it together. Attendance and interest were great, and a tradition was born.”

Kee also cited Delaware Cooperative Extension’s impact on Delaware Agricultural Week.

“It is a venue for information and technology transfer from UD and other great sources to the agricultural community. Equally important is Ag Week’s value as a venue for grower and industry feedback, which helps extension professionals identify needs and priorities,” said Kee.

As Delaware Agriculture Week ended, it seemed a fitting moment for Kee, who announced his retirement in October 2016, to reflect on his life, career and the future of agriculture.

Q: As Secretary of Agriculture, you introduced Delaware Agriculture in a global context. How have famers responded?

Kee: It is a great venue to raise awareness that we live in a global economy, and the farmer who is producing corn, soybeans and chickens in Delaware is impacted by these trends and technologies that are occurring around the world. I have always found — I’ve been to 15 countries working on agricultural projects, over 30 some years — that farmers really like listening to other farmers, and if it happens to be another farmer from another country, they are intrigued by that, and they find commonalities and begin to understand the challenges of other countries.

Q: In your eight-year tenure as secretary, what are you most proud of?

Kee: The Young Farmers Program, which provides zero interest loans to qualified young farmers who are buying a farm. This represents an investment into the human capital of the future of agriculture.

I am also proud of being so engaged with all the issues with a wide range of people related to water quality and nutrient management. We have helped farmers enhance their nutrient management practices without being burdensome, which has led to real improvements in the water quality of our surface and ground waters. Nutrient loading of nitrogen and phosphorus has been reduced by 40 percent.

I have been touched and impressed by emails, handwritten notes, phone calls and letters where people are thanking me for the eight years as secretary, and I am proud to know that I made a serious contribution. But I am humble enough to know that is all about working as part of a team. It has been a team effort. I am proud of the people that we’ve hired during my tenure; they bring a lot of enthusiasm and skill to the department.

Q: How did your 30-year career in Delaware Cooperative Extension prepare you for the role of secretary of agriculture?

Kee: I got to know so many farmers, and they got to know me. Relationships were already established, so that they felt comfortable that I was accessible as secretary. Extension had a lot to do with the relationship part. Extension is about delivering the science, the information, the technology, but also equally important to understand that farm families are trying to make a living, and we really have an impact — to let them know that somebody cares, that we are interested in them.

I have made the comment that being secretary of agriculture is a continuation of being in Cooperative Extension. One of the differences, though, is we have regulatory responsibilities, and extension is strictly education. At the Department of Ag, we like to do regulation through education. It is all connected. Being in extension, knowing about farming, knowing the farmers themselves, and them knowing me and then having an appreciation for the agricultural sciences across the field — that is what really helped me be an effective ag secretary.

Q: You didn’t have an agriculture background, yet chose it. Why should others consider a career in agriculture?

Kee: I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my dad was in the food business. At 16 I started working at Nassau Orchards and frankly I fell in love with it. I liked the work and the physicality of the work. There is a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. I was also intrigued by the science, by the business, and by the logistics of farming. Now at the age of 65, I am still as intrigued by agriculture and positive about its future today as I was when I was 20.

Agriculture has a fascinating future on many levels — sciences, business, at the farm level, food manufacturing, food distribution, ag policy level — it all makes a difference. We are going to go from 7 billion to 10 billion people by the time 20-year-olds today turn 50. That generation has to continue to work on solving the food production issues, keep it growing, but do it in a way that will not compromise quality of our environments around the world.

Q: What are the most significant moments in our agricultural history and what do you anticipate for its future?

Kee: The Farmland Assessment law, passed by the Delaware General Assembly in the 1960s, with the provision where farmers do not have to pay for taxes on farmland was tremendous. On the production side, no-till that was started in the 1970s increased yields, decreased energy use and proved to be good for our soils.

Another major positive development was an investment in irrigation. In 1973, when I got out of school, there were 20,000 acres of irrigated land, and most of that was hand-moved pipe for vegetable crops. Today, nearly 150,000 acres, or almost 25 percent of farmland, is irrigated. That has been huge in improving crop yields, but also helping to guarantee a good and profitable crop for farmers. The other is the whole evolution of technologies in poultry that has been incredibly productive.

Another is improved genetics for many crops. We get better yields, and they can withstand stress and pests better. More recently, information and spatial technology, global positioning, is creating efficiencies that have real positive economic impacts for growers.

Q: As a grandfather of five, what lessons do you impart about agriculture?

Kee: I want them to know how crops grow, how animals grow, where their food comes from, that they understand what photosynthesis is, why you put fertilizers down. The take home-message for them, and this is most important, is that farmers have to be profitable. All of the decisions we make about the future of farming is driven by that reality. So I tell the kids profit is not a bad word.

Q: What is next in your future?

Kee: I am involved in several ag-related projects, including a fellowship program that sends young American farmers overseas to learn. Grandchildren will be a big part of what I do. In addition, I’d like to write my third book on agriculture. Being with my family and enjoying the great state of Delaware will be the priority, along with being a UD fan, a Phillies fan and sailing.

Article by Michele Walfred