Delaware’s agriculture industry is diverse and thriving, and Sussex County is a major contributor to the industry.

Delaware’s agriculture industry is diverse and thriving, and Sussex County is a major contributor to the industry.

Mark Isaacs, director of Sussex County Cooperative Extension and the University of Delaware’s Carvel Research & Education Center, said a turn toward technology has kept agriculture going strong, especially in southern Delaware. In his position, Isaacs head’s the university’s field research and experiments, addressing everything from irrigation research to poultry diagnostics.

We caught up with Isaacs to give readers some insight regarding trends, strengths and challenges facing agriculture in Delaware, specifically in Sussex County.

Q What is the state of the agriculture industry in Sussex County today?

A It’s very vibrant. The agriculture industry continues to be the No. 1 industry for the state. It’s very diverse in the fact that we have field crops, we have fruits and vegetables, fresh markets and our industry also includes vegetable processing. We have a very vibrant poultry industry – Sussex County is actually the largest county in the country for broiler production when you look at the land base that it occupies. The grain industry, over the last couple of years, has seen very good profitability [because of high market values]. The dairy and beef industry is doing well. Poultry is king.


Q How has that changed in the last 20 or 30 years?

A Probably the biggest change is the adoption of technology. Our producers across the board, whether they’re vegetables, fruits, grain or livestock, are very progressive. They have new technologies to not only save them money, but save them energy, and look at increasing their production levels. Our agriculture operations are so diverse. We have really, really progressive producers that are adopting technology, fine-tuning their management programs and also their marketing.

The big thing in Sussex County that’s changed significantly in the last couple years is the amount of acreage that’s gone into irrigation. Our research and extension programs into irrigation has extended greatly in the last five years. We’ve become the kingpin when it comes to irrigation research and extension programs.

The swine industry has kind of diminished in the state, but there are still some active producers and they’re doing well, but it’s not the large scale it had been 10 to 15 years ago. Fifteen-plus years ago, it was very common to have a farmer growing poultry and swine, growing grain crops, vegetable crops. Now the profitability over the last several years has shifted more in the poultry industry.

There’s also the expansion of the turf industry. We have grain producers that have migrated into growing sod and they’re selling that sod everywhere – to professional football fields, to homeowners, to big developers. That’s really kind of exploded in the last five years.

Q What are some trends you’re seeing in Sussex County agriculture, for livestock and crops?

A For livestock, you’re seeing producers adopting the most aggressive technology. Whether that be ventilation, energy, looking at different lighting, different bedding. Nutrition is always going to be at the forefront. Also, looking at managing the livestock manure in the most effective way.

Precision agriculture has become huge. Using the technology where they’re adopting auto-steer and global positioning systems where they’re fine-tuning fertility and pest applications, nutrient applications on site-specific parts of the field.

New irrigation technologies are probably at the forefront right now. Water management and water conservation is going to continue to be at the forefront of agriculture nationwide. Delaware is at the front of looking at these technologies and making sure we’re doing the best we can at managing our water resources.

Q What do you see as the greatest challenges facing agriculture in Sussex County in the future?

A Maintaining a profitable industry. We have to make sure the poultry industry maintains profitability from the grain-producing side. From the processing side, that the vegetable processing companies remain profitable so that we have markets for our produce and our grain. Balancing agriculture while continuing to enhance production while maintaining environmental stewardship. Delaware has done a tremendous job in maintaining agriculture while maintaining environmental stewardship, and that will continue to be on the forefront.

We need to make sure we continue to be on the forefront of adopting new technology to save energy, to save our producers money, whether it’s in energy consumption or labor. Availability of migrant labor is going to continue to be very important.

[We need to] make sure that there continues to be a strong research and extension program aimed at looking at specific challenges our industry faces – improved irrigation for water conservation, to enhance variety production, looking at management of resistant weeds and insects.

Q What are the opportunities in Sussex County agriculture?

A They’re very good. When I talked about the agriculture industry and profitability, with that comes some industry opportunities for employment, whether it be from the crop protection standpoint, from the feed mills that are processing grain, all of the vegetable processing companies, and there are great entrepreneurial opportunities for some of the farmers markets for those that want to be self-employed. With the diversification of agriculture in Delaware, there’s a lot of diversity for employment opportunities as well.

Q What don’t people know that they should about agriculture in Sussex County

A Probably the biggest thing is that we’re not corporate. Agriculture in Delaware is not corporate. I think that’s a big misconception. There are different groups out there that try to paint a really negative picture about agriculture – ‘where’s your food coming from?’ – and over the years there’s been a disconnect that agriculture isn’t tied in with environmental stewardship. These family farmers are living on these farms, and they’re very big on environmental stewardship. [Agriculture in Sussex County is made up of] small families, generations of farm families that have progressively adopted new technologies to be successful in the agriculture industry, and they sincerely care about the environment and they care about the communities, too.