As businesses, shopping centers and housing developments pop up across Delaware County I have to wonder what that means for farmers in the county. What does city growth and development do to agricultural growth and development?
I think most people might conclude that the less farm ground available the less agricultural productivity and, to a certain extent, that is probably true. However, limited land can lead to diverse agricultural products, like specialty meats, produce and niche crops. These new products support the emergent local food movement and continue to stimulate the economy.
According to the last agricultural census taken in 2012, Delaware County lost over 13 percent of its farmland, when compared to the 2002 census. However, overall agricultural product market value increased by 41 percent in those same 10 years.
Now I realize a lot of other factors impact market prices and the overall economy, but I think the trend is important. A community does not necessarily lose agricultural productivity when it loses land.
I think this can be explained by farms not only using enhanced technology, seeds and practices but also because some farms take on new, more diverse crops. By being confined to farm in fewer acres, some farmers try a variety of non-traditional crops. These products may have higher cost or labor inputs but they also have higher profit margins than some more traditional crops, like corn and soybeans.
It is exciting to live in such a diverse community. More and more niche markets pop up every day, bringing more opportunities for farmers to expand their products. The demand for organic products drives opportunities for farmers, grocery stores, restaurants and food manufacturers. Specialty meats can serve a variety of cultural and religious markets, especially if production is timed to coincide with holidays and cultural celebrations. The popularity of craft brewing has created the demand for locally grown hops and barley grown, creating a whole new sector of agricultural production. People with dietary restrictions opened up the door for new products that are gluten- or lactose-free.
If you are interested in producing for a niche market, you can probably find someone who wants to buy your product nearby — one of the benefits of being close to a big city.
Soybeans are still the county’s number one agricultural product but nursery, greenhouse, floriculture and sod products are not far behind. The nursery and greenhouse industry relies on gardeners seeking the latest landscaping and bedding plants. More housing developments mean more flower beds and backyard gardens. This industry is booming in Delaware and, even though it might not be the typical farm, it is still a huge part of the agricultural sector.
The local foods movement is popular with urban and suburban communities and provides another way to connect producers to buyers. People are interested in knowing where their food comes from and many shoppers prefer to buy from a local source if given the choice. With more than a dozen farmers markets and on-farm markets within the county, consumers have the chance to support the local economy and connect with producers.
Despite these emerging opportunities for producers, Delaware County agriculture is still predominantly comprised of grain, forage and swine producers. These farmers have the largest economic impact and remain a cornerstone in our community. Grain crops make up over 60 percent of the agricultural product market value while livestock and poultry making up slightly over 10 percent.
Delaware is growing and so are the agricultural opportunities. The market value of agricultural products sold in Delaware continues to rise above $121.9 million. according to the latest agricultural census. Grain crops and livestock will continue to be a large part of Delaware’s agricultural make-up but, as the demand rises for specialty food items, a shift in production will occur. This shift will bring new opportunities to small diverse crop and livestock producers, greenhouses and nurseries.