Stewart Ramsey, a fifth generation farmer, talks about the loss of farmland to development in New Castle County, along with the opportunities in agriculture today.
Stewart Ramsey’s land in Talleyville, north of Wilmington, reflects some of the changes in agriculture in New Castle County through the years with one big exception – it’s still a farm.
Handed down through five generations, the land was originally used as a dairy farm from 1860 to 1970. Then, while an ever-increasing number of farms were being sold for housing and commercial development, the Ramseys kept their land but started growing corn, soybeans, and wheat, and raising pigs and beef cattle.
Today, the Ramseys are part of the agritourism movement, growing pumpkins that visitors can pick themselves, offering hayrides, corn mazes, and farm tours, and growing hay for horses.
Ramsey is also the president of the New Castle County Farm Bureau, and he took the time to answer questions about those changes through the years, along with the challenges and opportunities in agriculture today.
Q What is the state of the agriculture industry in New Castle County today?
A Agriculture in New Castle County is generally in a good financial condition with some of its farm income sources being linked more to the consumer rather than just to major commodity markets like corn, wheat, and soybeans. That said, these grain crops are still important to the county, just less so than the other counties.
Some farms have added direct marketing activities – fruits, vegetables, and meats, value added products such as farm made ice cream, and you-pick crops and agritourism – pumpkin picking, hayrides, and farm tours – as additional ways to generate income from the land.
While from county to county no state is homogeneous with respect to the makeup of its agriculture, in New Castle County this is particularly true. As you move from north to south, the topography of the land and the soils change from rolling hills with rocky silt loam soils to much flatter fields with increased amounts of sand and clay in the soil. The southern portion of New Castle County has much less contrast with Kent and Sussex counties than it does with the northern extreme of New Castle County. The difference has made New Castle County more diversified in terms of the makeup of what crops are grown and how the land is used. Another driving force in how the county operates is the proximity to the non-farming public and food customers. This is another form of diversification – selling direct.
Q How has that changed in the last 20 or 30 years?
A Looking back 30 years, New Castle County has lost crop land at a greater rate than Kent or Sussex counties. In 1980, New Castle County planted roughly 90,000 acres to corn, soybeans, and wheat. Today, using 2013 data, that number stands at 45,000 – a 50 percent decline. These acres have largely left agriculture for housing and commercial use. Sussex County has seen a 26 percent loss in these major crops and Kent has seen a 17 percent decline.
Given that New Castle County already has a smaller ag land base than the other counties, we have also seen a loss in the infrastructure to support many of our remaining grain farms in the county.
Q What do you see as the greatest challenges facing agriculture in New Castle County in the future?
A One of the greatest challenges for agriculture in our county is maintaining our ability to conduct farming activities in close proximity to the non-farming public. Basically we need the non-farming public to better understand the activities that farmers do to produce food and the great lengths we go to in protecting the public, the environment, and ourselves in the process. Farmers in the county and throughout the state have made great advances in productivity and efficient use of fertilizer and other inputs to be sustainable and profitable. This also helps keep food prices affordable. Delaware has been a leader in the use of conservation tillage practices and cover crops to increase production and protect the environment. Basically we need our neighbors to realize that having a farmer in your backyard is a good thing and if you want your food to be local, how can it be any other way?
Q What are the opportunities in agriculture?
A There is no single silver bullet that can be applied to all farms in New Castle County or to any of our counties. A successful agricultural sector is the product of many things working together. In the area of major grain crops, Delaware farmers have been successful in adopting advanced growing practices and detailed information to continue to increase yields and efficient use of resources, and I expect this to continue as it has. An increasing number of farms will offer agritourism activities – farm tours and the like – as Delaware’s populations continues to grow. We need politicians and legislators to aggressively support efforts to preserve what farmland we have.
Q What don’t people know that they should know about agriculture in New Castle County?
A A few examples are the impact of having open fields and farmed land as a contrast to a development. The fields are more scenic. They provide habitat for wildlife, add to the area for groundwater recharge for wells, and they don’t add traffic to the highway or additional strain to public infrastructure such as schools and public waste disposal. We also operate an agritourism operation [and] educate, those that care to listen, about what farmers do and how they use technology to be more efficient – everything from genetically-modified (GMO) crops to robots that milk cows and drive tractors.