As farmers supporting future farmers and agribusiness employees, the Sussex County Farm Bureau made a $4,000 donation, and Delaware Farm Bureau's Young Farmers and Ranchers made another $1,000 donation to the Production Agriculture Program at Del Tech's Owens Campus in Georgetown.
"The ag program at Del Tech provides students with training for job opportunities in the ag sector," said local farmer Willis Kirk, who moved to Delaware to teach agriculture at the high school level, then served for 18 years as department chair of the agriculture program at Del Tech. Kirk also has been a farm bureau member for 37 years, and a county or state farm bureau director for almost that long.
"Many students from Del Tech are employed in the poultry industry and agribusinesses that supply agriculture. I could go down the list of names of individuals who have moved up and now run programs at companies such as Perdue, Mountaire or Merck Animal Health. The training provided to assist these students is invaluable. Many students at four-year universities may not come back to the local area to take these jobs, but we have a large group of students who are employed in the ag industry."
Kirk noted that Del Tech has advisory committees from the business community to help determine the needs of the industry. "They have information firsthand as to what is needed in the way of education," he said.
Support for the college makes sense, because farm bureau members depend on agribusiness in order to stay in business themselves. "Our core members are farmers in the community," Kirk said. "We know these students as they grow up, go to Del Tech and become part of agribusinesses. We have a working relationship with them on a personal level."
Del Tech also provides an opportunity for members' own children to get an education at far less than it would cost at a four-year institution. "Of course, they can go on and transfer to a four-year college," Kirk said. His granddaughter graduated from Del Tech and is currently completing her business degree at Wilmington University. His wife and son are Del Tech grads, as are other relatives. "It certainly has been beneficial to our family," he said. Kirk also has employed many students part time while they were studying at Del Tech, working around their schedule at school.
Equipment made possible by the farm bureau donations will be put to work this spring in the production agriculture program. Most of the money was used to purchase a mulch layer, which forms a mound as it moves down a row and covers the mound with plastic mulch for growing vegetables. The balance of the donation will be used to purchase a mulch lifter to remove the plastic at the end of the season.
Also new at Del Tech are a vegetable packing house which was donated by Sussex County, and three new high tunnel greenhouses, made possible by donations from the late Matt Haley of SoDel Concepts, O.A. Newton in Bridgeville and then-Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee. A hydroponic greenhouse is being funded by DuPont Co.
For a project that started six years ago, "The new facilities and equipment are a dream come true," said Kyle Serman, department chair. He is excited about all the opportunities the new hands-on program will provide. "We are very thankful for the amazing support we have received," he said.
The packing house is already in use, although equipment is still being installed. A walk-in cooler will help keep fresh the produce which is harvested from fields in the 4-acre plot. Students will practice marketing and communication skills as they sell produce to the public. They also will learn Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices required by the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Rule.
Serman said the small acreage devoted to the program will sustain a variety of crops, including bramble fruits and a vineyard. "This is a good opportunity for students to see alternative agriculture," Serman said. Students who cannot afford enough acreage to grow corn and soybeans can learn how to start small with alternative crops. Students will also be introduced to a wide variety of job opportunities within the agricultural industry.
Del Tech's ag program has 114 students enrolled at present. Production Ag is the largest program in the department.