Delaware’s agriculture is here to stay

October 19, 2021

It was a hot and humid mid-July day, one of the warmest in the summer up to that point. The tractor I was using on my family’s farm had cut out, so I headed back to the farmhouse to get a couple of tools. Oddly, such hurdles don’t get under my skin. There was a job to be done, so there was no need - or time - to be annoyed.

To say that many here in Sussex have a deep appreciation for Delaware’s agricultural community would be a gross understatement. I come from a family of farmers. In fact, our family is direct descendants of the owners of the land where the Town of Georgetown is now located. While not debating legislation in the Senate, I can often be found working on our family farm. Sometimes, it’s even necessary to have to repair broken-down equipment in the middle of the day.

Commercial agriculture has a long history in the First State.  Peaches and strawberries were an important crop in the 19th century, and well into the 20th. Selbyville was known as the “Strawberry Capital of the World,” with 7 million quarts of strawberries sent to market by 1899. Over the following three decades, strawberries were king.  During the heyday of peach growing in the state, Delaware had over 800,000 producing peach trees. Some farms in Sussex County still specialize in those two delicious fruits.

The modern broiler industry also originated here in the First State. That industry, from its humble beginnings in Cecile Steele’s broiler house in 1923, now produces over 4 billion pounds of meat right here on the Delmarva Peninsula.  Delaware’s poultry industry contributes $7.23 billion to the economy of the First State.

Alas, as the great Bob Dylan’s song is appropriately titled, “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Indeed they are. Delaware’s more relaxed lifestyle, low taxes, and quick access to the beaches have brought thousands of newcomers to our state. The rapid expansion of housing has resulted in new developments running adjacent to, and often in conflict with, agricultural land. Most farmers here work with heavy machinery in their fields and orchards. When traveling between those fields, they have to utilize our roadway infrastructure.

Too often, I see angry motorists behind a farmer’s combine flailing about impatiently and without regard to their safety or the safety of other drivers or the farmers.  In those moments, I find myself pondering if they had benefited from that farmer’s labor by enjoying our local fruits, vegetables, or meat.

Recently, I received a complaint from a constituent who was allegedly awoken by agricultural equipment early that morning. In her email, she claimed that the farmer behind her house, “…woke me and my neighborhood up at 2 a.m. to clear his field.” She asked what the need was for working that late and then concluded that the farmer was suffering, “…from a manic episode!” I also saw a social media post from a local family who has been working and living on the same land for seven generations. They were out late working in their fields when a neighbor drove onto their farm and verbally harassed them, asserting that she was going to call the police if they didn’t stop. I have also had complaints from residents near large fields who didn’t like other agricultural operations such as crop dusting or the spreading of fertilizer near their homes. 

As I have described to anyone who complains about agricultural operations, farming is not a Monday through Friday 9-5 job. Be it equipment malfunctions, labor shortages, weather issues, or other factors, farmers have to work odd hours more often than they’d like.  They do this to feed you and me, and to carry out their strong family heritage. What may seem like a manic episode to some is just part of the job to the average farmer. Various farming operations, such as planting, crop dusting, harvesting, and preparing for next year’s seasons don’t end when the sun goes down.

I say all that to make this point: We must protect and be thankful for Delaware’s farming industry. Agriculture is a large portion of our state’s economy, employs thousands of workers, and makes up a great percentage of our three counties’ property tax bases. Not to mention, the industry keeps our grocery stores stocked with meat, fruits, and vegetables. 

Farming in Delaware was here long before you or I and, God willing, will continue well beyond the time we leave this Earth.

Also, in case you were wondering, I did get the tractor up and running again.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn is the minority whip in the Delaware Senate and represents the 19th District.
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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