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Agribusiness, food processing may be on the rise in southern Delaware

Katie Tabeling
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Delaware has strong roots in agriculture, and state economic development officials report that they are seeing more agriculture businesses and food processors start to take notice. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CORTEVA

In the past year, Delaware has been attracting attention from a cluster of businesses that harken back to the state’s roots: agribusiness and food processing.

The Delaware Prosperity Partnership (DPP), a public-private partnership tasked with driving the First State’s economic development, has been seeing an uptick of interest from food and agriculture companies for potential projects since in the last few years. So far, these successes include food redistributor Dot Foods in Bear, dog food manufacturer JustFoodForDogs in New Castle and cheesesteak manufacturer B&M Meats in Wilmington.

But looking ahead, DPP Vice President of Business Development Becky Harrington says prospects are recently turning their attention southward, toward Kent and Sussex counties.

“We’ve definitely had some companies looking exclusively at Kent and Sussex County,” she told the Delaware Business Times. “There’s a lot of interest in farming, integrating with our existing farms and bringing technology and innovations to the state. That includes production and growing produce and other associated activities.”

Delaware is one of the smallest states by area in the country, but still had 2,300 farms that brought in $1.4 billion in gross receipt sales in 2021. Corn production last year was valued at $188 million, with soybean production trailing slightly behind at $94 million. The state is home to three major chicken processing companies, all located in southern Delaware. Many farmers may sell their wares directly for feed.

The strong, existing agricultural community in Kent and Sussex counties makes it attractive for agribusiness companies and food processors, Harrington said.

“The topography is flat and the soil is sandy, which makes it easier to farm. The talent is there, with employees, farmers, supporting industry vendors,” she said. “And everyone says: location, location, location. We’re between the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. market and the Philadelphia/New York market.”

Delaware reportedly has become more attractive to agribusiness prospects overall because they lately are getting priced out of New Jersey and Maryland, Harrington said. The First State still touts that it is 25% less expensive to do business here compared to the national average.

The DPP markets the entire state holistically, through targeted outreach efforts through business publications and trade magazines as needed. The state also coordinates with Sussex County Economic Development Director Bill Pfaff and Kent Economic Partnership Executive Director Linda Parkowski on finding prospects and gathering information for them.

But in the last couple of years, the DPP held a virtual consultant summit, where they brought in five consultants and connected them with state partners. The summit also included a tour of sites. Some of those consultants were in food and agriculture manufacturing.

Other tools that may help entice agribusiness companies include the research and development tax credits for early stage companies, as well as the ease of doing business in Delaware.

“I can’t knock our neighbors, but we do hear a lot from companies that are looking to locate here that it’s easier to do business here. It helps that you’re still in the Mid-Atlantic region and Northeast metropolitan areas,” Harrington added.

She also noted the state’s partnerships with University of Delaware, Delaware Technical Community College and Delaware State University – all of which have extensively researched agriculture. The three colleges created the Center for Integrated Biological and Environmental Research (CIBER), housed at DSU’s Dover campus, which leads the research on plant genetics, water quality, plant biotechnology and more.

“They’re on the cutting edge of understanding where this industry is going, so it’s always great to call them and they’re an expert. They’ve been studying this for a while,” Harrington said. “Delaware is well positioned to take advantage of the innovations that are coming down stream and the business from our clients. And we’re ready to receive them.”

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