Who’s It Going to Be?

A new year is fast approaching, as well as a new government cabinet both on a federal and local level. It seems many are looking ahead, anxious for a change from the past 8 years in more ways than one. I am one of those people on several levels but I’m closely paying attention to agriculture. Does anyone else find it interesting that there’s yet to be a pick for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture? From what I’ve read, it always tends to be a late December pick but this seems to be one of the latest. I’m hoping that doesn’t mean it’s on the back burner and all the other more important picks came first. According to this article from Politico, our President-elect seems to be running through many names. My only hope is he remembers rural America elected him because of the promises he made to farmers out west regarding regulations and support for ethanol. Let me also mention that I hope he doesn’t fill the post to make himself look better (i.e. picking a female because he only has 4 in cabinet so far or picking a Democrat to be bipartisan or for another “R” seat in Congress).

That brings me to the state level. I have no inside information. However, I do find the recently announced transition teams set up by Governor-elect Carney interesting. I assume the agriculture secretary will be chosen from the “Economic Development & Healthy Environment” committee and only one name from the ag industry sits on that committee, Chris Perdue from Perdue Agribusiness. Is it wrong to want a real life farmer on the panel that selects our next Secretary of Agriculture? Doesn’t our #1 industry deserve this?

However, I do find it promising that agriculture is the fifth pillar in Carney’s economic plan. He focuses on supporting farmers through the following opportunities:

  1. Improve nutrient management regulations
  2. Reduce permitting barriers
  3. Preserve farmland and
  4. Promote agribusiness

I assume these would be the priorities of the next incoming cabinet official as well as the focus of the transition panel when picking the next secretary. If you have anything to do with farming, read or share the details found here and make sure you mention whether you agree or disagree the next time you see our Governor-elect or his staff. Or better yet, pick up the phone and call him-http://transition.delaware.gov/contact/

P.S.-The only public insight I’ve found so far from the transition team is from this Cape Gazette article highlighting Todd Lawson’s involvement. Todd actually has an agricultural background and grew up in Sussex County. Too bad he isn’t on the committee selecting our Ag secretary…..

A Post Labor Day School Start

Are task forces pointless? I’m starting to think so. I wish someone would do analysis on how many task forces have been established by our General Assembly and if their recommendations have been implemented into state law. Are they just a way to appease stakeholders, by allowing them to work on a policy issue for months, while legislators just hope the issue dies and go away? Take, for example, a 2014 task force which voted IN FAVOR of starting each school year after Labor Day. Several attempts to push through a bill for post Labor Day start have failed since, even though the new economic benefits are clear for Delaware’s #3 Tourism industry.

In my last blog, I mention an issue regarding labor at our retail produce stand. All of our seasonal help typically returns to school about two weeks before the Labor Day holiday. This includes adults and teenagers. Labor Day is our biggest holiday and August beach traffic has increased the past couple years. Retaining even just a few seasonal employees for an additional week or two would help us tremendously as our family has pick to up the slack over the remaining months of September and October. I assume many other produce operations, especially those with fall agritourism events, encounter the same labor issue in addition to seasonal beach businesses.

Over a month ago, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan took the matter into his own hands and signed an executive order mandating an after Labor Day school start and an end date by June 15 next school year (2017-2018). He cited family, economic, environmental, health benefits from a later start:

  • 75% of Marylander’s support a later start
  • August is the 2nd hottest month in Maryland
  • Baltimore County city has 37 schools with no air conditioning and must close when temperature is over 90 degrees
  • Other schools with air conditioning can reduce energy bill costs in hottest summer months
  • August is the most popular month for family vacations
  • Many students and teachers work at the beach
  • 2013 economic study showed $74 million dollar increase in new economic activity for the tourism industry with later start date
  • Maryland Farm Bureau vocally supported Governor Hogan’s efforts for 2 reasons: seasonal summer labor and MD State Fair youth participation.
  • Peter Franchot, Maryland’s Comptroller started a campaign called, “Let Summer Be Summer

I love Gov. Hogan’s recent remarks about his decision to move forward on this issue. He called out the media, the commission that studied it, and MD legislators for not getting it done. Impressive. You have to watch this video.

Without a Republican Governor, I’m pretty certain Delaware won’t mandate this through an executive order any time soon. So, we’ll keep twiddling our thumbs and wait for legislators to do the right thing for 2 of our biggest industries in Delaware: tourism and agriculture. You can access the final report from the task force below and I’ll point out the letters at the end from constituents as well as the note from the Indian River Superintendent and Board, who decided to respect their business partners and community by starting after Labor Day without being mandated. The task force had legislator, school district, tourism and small business representation; however, no one from the ag industry or our state farm bureau was involved.

0603_001-final-labor-day

Fun on the Farm? No, thank you!

Yesterday’s News Journal article “Fun on the farm is serious business for Delaware Farmers” highlights 3 Delaware agritourism sites and their successes. However, the article states “some farmers have been slow to adapt. First state farmers are even further behind the agritourism trend. The USDA found only 43 of Delaware’s 2,450 farms offer agritourism, producing $453,000 in annual income.”

The missing link to the story is an interview with a farmer who decided not to expand into this market and the reasons why. A simple Google search of “agritourism barriers” will do the trick. But since we’ve looked into it ourselves, I can tell you first hand why the end search result for us has always been a resounding “No, thank you! It’s not worth the risk”!

In Little Wagon’s case, we do our best to get to know our customers and have found over the years that most seem in a hurry to get to their beach destination. We just haven’t had the requests. Beyond the demand issue, what else has kept us from diversifying into this “fun on the farm” business?

  1. Capital-for a small business, how much do we need to invest to make it successful? How soon will it pay off? How do we structure pricing?
  2. Labor-this could be #1. Let’s face it, we struggle terribly by the end of August because our seasonal help goes back to school. September and October are very long months for the family with no help on the schedule. How can we add more fall activities without good help?
  3. Insurance Liability/Safety– on farm activities such as hay mazes, games, petting zoos with live animals only increase concerns around safety. How much will our already high insurance plans increase? Check out the research link on agritourism safety below.
  4. Promotion & Advertising-small businesses just do not have the budget for this. Yes, we can take advantage of free social media all day but additional advertising such as radio spots, local paper ads, and even Facebook advertising can be expensive.
  5. Regulation Compliance-what if we add a gift shop or bathrooms on site? What about the need for hand sanitizing with petting zoos? This will add public health inspections to our regulations list. What about signage along Rt. 404? What about entrances on Rt. 404? How easy do you think obtaining these permits from DOT will be? We’ve kept it simple for all these years and avoided these headaches.

Maybe we need to have more of the “build it and they will come” mentality. The end of the article mentions personality of a farmer and how it can allow a farm business to diversify. I believe this is true but it also depends on risk and how much a farmer (and his family) wants to take on. My research also tells me that more established businesses are less likely to expand. We are closing on our 27th year and Farmer Dan is very conservative. I respect him for not wanting our family to take on more risk. Besides, with low grain prices and drought this summer, where will farmers get the income to diversify? They’re too busy investing, fixing, and babysitting irrigation systems….oh wait, that’s a different kind of “fun on the farm”.

Agritourism Research found and read:

 

 

Delaware’s Grassroots Ag Champion

Every cause longs for a well-spoken, trusted advocate and they aren’t easy to find. There’s no doubt about it, Delaware agriculture has a champion in Rep. Dave Wilson. Only second to his constituents, Delaware agriculture is Rep. Wilson’s #1 priority. His commitment to securing farm land preservation state funds is critical to securing the future of Delaware farmers; not to mention its relation to preserving open space for all Delaware citizens. He pushed through House Bill 124 this past legislative session to fight for realty transfer tax dollars that were originally earmarked for ag land preservation. Needless to say, Delaware’s ag land preservation fund has only received a small fracture of these funds. Keep in mind, this bill would change our state Constitution, which requires 2/3 passing vote by each house in two consecutive general assemblies. This is a tough feat, for any cause. Rep. Wilson even told me that a prominent agricultural leader discouraged him from pursuing it because of budget constraints. But Rep. Wilson pursued it anyway. Why? Because that’s exactly what champions do! They aren’t afraid to be the underdog and in the process, they bring positive media attention and education about land preservation to those who have no clue that agriculture is Delaware’s #1 economic industry. The bill did not pass the first leg but it was close! He garnered 20 yes votes from his colleagues and he promises to try again.

More recently, his primary opponent brought attention to Rep. Wilson’s own participation in the ag preservation program (all public information on the DDA website). While I understand and appreciate the transparency, I believe most of the agricultural community know the history. You see, if Rep. Wilson wanted to get in when the “getting was good”, he would’ve taken advantage of the program in its earlier inception years when the average collective discount was well below 50%. If you really care to dig more on this issue, then let’s just mention the two former sitting legislators who DID take advantage early on: Rep. Wallace Caulk (Round 1, 1996, 27% collective discount, total over $770,000) and Rep. George Carey (1997, 33% collective discount, total over a million dollars). And guess what? Neither are public champions for the program nor currently advocate for funding such as Rep. Wilson.

Let me try explaining another way. Farmers who participate in this program, sell their development rights back to the state at a fracture of what they’re worth. It can never be sold for development or non-agricultural use.  You may only see large dollar sign totals but again, this is a fracture of what the land is appraised. For the state, it provides open space preservation for the future and ensures funding to our #1 economic industry. For farmers, it is a funding source that gives them some value for their property without selling out and can ensure their future relatives remain in farming practice. Let’s face it, they’re basically doing the state a favor by promising to never develop their land for minimal cost.

In other words, Rep. Wilson has nothing more to gain. All of his land is being preserved, which tells me he believes and trusts in the program enough to participate and wants to garner more funds for his fellow farming colleagues. Most probably know he was a farmer, horse breeder, and auctioneer first and our only active farmer in Delaware’s legislative body. Even better than an advocate is an advocate who has been on the ground, actively involved in the work, known as “grassroots”. There is NO other current Delaware legislator that can say his or her priority is Delaware agriculture. Based on this, I believe Delaware agriculture has a “grassroots” champion in Rep. Dave Wilson. We need to keep him in our legislature to preserve ag lands and our future in farming!

For more information, click here. To get involved in Rep. Wilson’s campaign, click here.

Farmers, Minimum Wage Hike, and Voting Straight “R”

In case you haven’t heard, an upstate legislator, Sen., Robert Marshall (D-Wilmington West) recently sponsored SB 39 to raise Delaware’s minimum wage over several years. When discussing this topic, many seem uneducated because they don’t own a business or they do not work a minimum wage paying job. Therefore, I think it’s important to start by laying out the current facts:

  • The current federal minimum wage rate is: $7.25, effective July 24, 2009, for non-exempt employees
  • However, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) states if an employee is subject to both the state and federal minimum wage laws, the employee is entitled to the higher minimum wage rate.
  • Delaware’s minimum wage rate is: $8.25, effective July 1, 2015.
  • Surrounding states (according to NCSL):
    • Virginia remains $7.25
    • Maryland is $8.25 but raises to $8.75 in July 2016, $9.25 in July 2017 and $10.10 in July 2018
    • Pennsylvania remains $7.25
  • As of Jan. 1, 2016 the highest rate is D.C. at $10.50. This is the first rate to cross the $10.00 threshold. If you don’t count D.C. as a state then next up is California and Massachusetts at $10.00.

In Delaware, the bill passed the Senate on Jan. 27, 2016. The bill originally proposed incrementally increasing the wage to $15.05 by over eight years (eff. June 1, 2023)! However, after a fierce debate, the bill was amended to increase to $10.25 over four years:

  • $8.75 eff. June 1, 2016
  • $9.25 eff. June 1, 2017
  • $9.75 eff. June 1, 2018
  • $10.25 eff. June 1, 2019
  • There is no change to minimum wage with tips (i.e. restaurant server)
  • There is no cost of living adjustment (COLA)
  • There is a fiscal note attached which outlines increases to casual/seasonal state workers

Business owners came out in full force to testify against the bill, which included many farmers, such as Fifer Farms in Kent and Vincent Farms in Sussex. Both testified and opposed the increase as seen on WBOC: Some Local Farmers Oppose Higher Minimum Wage

Apparently the response from legislators to the farmers was: “But Ag is exempt!”. Not once did they say “Ag is our #1 Industry”! Employees in agriculture are exempt but anyone who owns a business knows that it’s hard to find to good help these days. Agricultural employers MUST stay competitive in order to attract skilled workers. Therefore, ag is truly not exempt. The same goes for young workers (under the age of 20), who are also exempt. For example, Little Wagon Produce hires many seasonal employees who are usually high school students. How will we attract these students to work in the heat, pick produce, and get dirty for $7.25/hour when they can work in the air conditioner at McDonald’s for $10.25/hr? The same goes for foreign laborers who can work for larger landscaping companies instead of local farming operations. I believe the response to our local farmers shows just how uneducated our legislators really are today. Many have NO ties to local farming or own any type of small business.

Our local Chamber’s of Commerce have spoken out against the bill as well. Judy Diogo, President of the Central Chamber of Commerce, recently wrote an excellent opinion in the Delaware State News, noting many other increases to small businesses such as health care insurance, unemployment insurance, taxes, regulations, licensing fees, and operating costs. She noted 70% of the 1,000 businesses she represents were against a hike increase. This fact should have perked every Kent legislator’s ears; however, many voted YES including Sen. Bruce Ennis (D-Smyrna) who chairs the Senate Ag Committee! So disappointing! Especially after hearing so many farmers testify. Again, this is a negative outcome from the lack of agricultural ties in our legislature.

Last but not least, I must mention another local opinion from a young observant, Stephen Baione,  who just happened to be visiting the Senate chamber on the day of the minimum wage debate. His article was well-written and his observations speak volumes. He, too, realizes many do not own a business. But the common disrespect towards those testifying and minority party legislators makes me want to change my party status ASAP. It also makes me want to vote straight “R” in the upcoming election. If you don’t read anything else in this blog, please click on this link.

The bill is now Assigned to Economic Development/Banking/Insurance/Commerce Committee in the House. The DE General Assembly goes back into session in March 8th. I encourage you to speak out and contact your local legislator or local Chamber of Commerce today. 

Only One “C” Remains

In speaking engagements statewide, Senator Tom Carper has often mentioned the three C’s of Delaware. He’s referring to Delaware’s rich history in the economic industries of cars, chemicals, and chickens. It looks as though he will have to edit his speech as only one lone “C” seems to remain strong in Delaware.

Chemicals-Founded in 1802, the three DuPont cousins transformed gunpowder making to chemicals. The manufacturing company went through many transformations over the years but settled on the sciences-centering it’s focus on food, seed, and biofuels. The company seemed to embrace agriculture with its “Pioneer” seed division, crop protection chemicals, and in-feed animal nutrition and biosecurity products. However, 2015 will forever be known as the year DuPont merged with the Michigan based company known as Dow Chemical Co. The new name? “DowDuPont”. Delaware has lost its lone chemical empire and the single name giant. What does this mean for local agriculture? Will farmers buy seed from a Michigan based seed sales rep? How long before this sales rep is based in China? What is the economic impact on our state? No one seems to know or at least no one is talking. State elected leaders were quick to post sad comments on social media as the news broke. Too little, too late. It can’t be the way our Governor wanted to end his last year in office and 2016 is an election year.

Cars-The industry fell apart in 2009 with the exit of the Chrysler plant in Newark, DE. Soon thereafter, the old GM plant turned Fisker fell bankrupt right under the state’s nose; an epic fail at the start of the Markell administration.

Chickens-Only one shining star remains. The lone “C” is chickens and it’s Sussex County’s claim to fame. The poultry industry began in 1923 in Ocean View, DE when Cecile Steele mistakenly was delivered 500 chicks. She only ordered 50 to replace her laying flock. She kept them, raised them, and sold 387 survivors for 62 cents a pound. Here we are 93 years later and Sussex County ranks #1 in U.S. broiler production, producing over 200 million birds each year. There are more than 1,500 poultry farms on Delmarva with more than 4,600 individual houses. The economic impact is huge with a total of over 13,000 jobs and an aggregate output of $3.2. billion. But the industry is not invincible. Farmers and state officials are preparing for the outbreak of avian influenza to hit. A proposed “water tax” keeps popping up in the Delaware General Assembly, which could hurt all farmers not just poultry growers. Nutrient management laws are being shoved down farmers’ throats. Animal welfare activists claim poultry growers are “factory farms” and have tried to gain access to local chicken house facilities to claim abuse. Will elected officials take note and protect a thriving downstate industry? Or will they post on social media the day after the industry is gone? Thank goodness for those working behind the scenes to advocate for poultry farmers such as Delmarva Poultry Industry (DPI) and the DE Farm Bureau. But is it enough? Senator Carper, you may not have any C’s left.

Response to “Shame on Carney for GMO food vote”

In response to the Delaware State News article, “Shame on Carney for GMO food vote”on July 29, I would like to set the record straight regarding GMO food and labeling.

First of all, there are only eight crops commercially available from GMO seed in the United States. They are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, and squash. I have seen many non-GMO labels in the grocery store already, such as on blueberries. This is unnecessary and confusing because blueberries have never been a GMO food. The same goes for canned pineapple and popcorn.

Furthermore, leading scientists and world health organization’s agree that GMO foods are safe to eat. Before GM crops can be released to the market, they are tested in ways that conventional and organic crops are not. If a study were ever to yield a result that raised any food safety concern, it is required by law that the information be presented to the FDA. Not a single case of ill health has originated from the consumption of these products for the past 20 years.

In reality, GMO labeling isn’t about a nutrition, health, or food safety issue. It’s about marketing. It’s a ploy where food companies try to capture your attention and separate their product from competitors on grocery shelves. It’s about capturing “fad” food preferences as well. For example, only 1% of the United States population suffers from celiac disease, which requires a gluten-free diet. However, gluten-free labels are everywhere. Food marketers have a history of taking advantage of consumer confusion.

Last but not least, it’s important to know for every dollar we spend on food, only about 16 cents goes to the farmer. Requiring labeling would pass a huge expense down to the farmer and even the consumer. So THANK YOU, Rep. Carney, for standing for science and Delaware’s #1 industry…….Agriculture.

For more information, please visit the links embedded in the article or go here and talk to a real farmer: http://findourcommonground.com/