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Farming still drives First State’s economy
By Margo McDonough   - 10/07/2007

The News Journal

Plants, animals and insects aren't the only things native to Delaware. The case can be made that farming, too, is native to the First State. Agriculture was, after all, the earliest industry in Delaware, and it remains an important industry today.

"Farming has shaped the physical and social landscape of Delaware since pre-Colonial times," says Ed Kee, UD Cooperative Extension specialist for vegetable crops.

We know that Native Americans in the region farmed corn, beans and squash. Farming also was critical to the sustenance and survival of the first European settlers of what would become Delaware."

Grain milling, fruit crops, corn, vegetables, dairy and poultry production all had important roles in the state's economy in ensuing years.

"A lot of people are surprised that agriculture is still the No. 1 industry," says Kee. "In the last century, the state economy has diversified, and the percentage of farmland has decreased, but ag still comes out on top."

Kee has written a book, "Delaware Farming" (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) that explores the state's farming history through photographs. Kee, a fifth-generation Delawarean, says two very different groups asked for such a book -- longtime farmers and transplants to the state.

"I come in contact with a lot of newcomers who are curious about old barns and grange halls, and landmarks like the Laurel Farmers' Auction Market," says Kee. "They appreciate the area's rich agricultural history and want to know more about their new communities."

In many of these now-sprawling suburbs, farm-related businesses were once the seat of community life. "A half-century ago, the 'center of the universe' for [Middletown, Odessa and Townsend] residents was Carothers, a granary that was operated by one family for three generations," says Kee.

The granary, which was located on Del. 896, south of the Summit Bridge, was closed in the 1990s and replaced by a shopping center.

"During harvest season, farmers dropped off grain at Carothers several times a week," says Kee. "Not only did business get conducted, but politics were debated and news exchanged."

A bit further south, many locals still consider a trip to Fifer Orchards an essential autumn tradition. Some pick their own apples; others merely pick up a bushel in Fifer's country store. The orchard, whose main operation is a half mile west of Wyoming, is all that remains of a once-thriving fruit industry in Kent County.

In 1890, there were 2 million peach trees in Kent County, but a disease reduced that number to 200,000 by 1935, says Kee. Apples, already an important crop, quickly became the top fruit.

A few decades later, it wasn't disease but changing social conditions that decimated the apple crop.

"Kent's orchards primarily grew green cooking apples that were used for applesauce and home canning," says Kee. "Once canned applesauce became standard in the supermarket, housewives stopped making their own, and Kent's apple industry declined."

In Sussex County, soybeans and vegetables have been mainstay crops for centuries, but it's the relative newcomer on the block -- poultry -- that now drives the county's economy. The nation's broiler chicken industry got its start there thanks to an Ocean View farm wife's ingenuity. In 1923, Cecile Steele ordered 50 egg-laying chicks from her supplier - but instead received 500 chicks. Unfazed by the goof, Steele raised the chicks and sold them for meat. Today, the county produces more than 200 million chickens a year.

Steele's original chicken house -- a lean-to of weather-beaten boards and chicken wire -- is now on display at the Delaware Agricultural Museum in Dover.

Steele's chicks weren't living large, but in New Castle County's Château Country, a herd of cows certainly were. In the first half of the 20th century, Winterthur -- home to Henry Francis du Pont -- was also home to a dairy herd. The cows enjoyed lush, productive pastures and lived in state-of-the-art barns that were considered the most advanced in the country at the time.

"In 1914, H.F. du Pont began a systematic breeding program to produce a better, more productive dairy breed," says Kee. "Du Pont had great success; his herd held national milk production records for decades. The genetic base of this Winterthur breed was disseminated to farms worldwide."
Cows no longer roam the pastures of Winterthur; the last of the herd was sold in 1969.

"But you can still find dairy herds in New Castle County," notes Kee. "One of the most visited is probably the herd at Woodside Farm Creamery, where Jim Mitchell makes ice cream from his cows' milk."

In other words, the movers and shakers may change, but agriculture remains a viable force in Delaware. "Despite significant land development since World War II, our agricultural heritage remains strong -- currently 42 percent of the state's land mass is working farmland," says Kee.

Kee will give a lecture on Delaware's agricultural traditions on Oct. 17, at 6 p.m., at the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village. For more information, call 734-1618.

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