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EDITORIAL: Farms feel the trade winds possibly stronger than most

Katie Tabeling
Editor Katie Tabeling considers how interconnected businesses and farms truly are, when it comes to our international trade.

Editor Katie Tabeling considers how interconnected businesses and farms truly are, when it comes to our international trade. PHOTO BY UNSPLASH/DAN MEYERS

With relatives on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, I spend a lot of time driving past flat farmlands with tall and long linear irrigation systems watering lines of soybeans and budding corn stalks. It can blend together over time, but I’ve found myself wondering more about the stories of the farmers who tend to those fields.

Delaware has a long history of agriculture, starting with tobacco crops exported through the Port of Philadelphia through the late 18th century when an entrepreneur from Newport designed flour mills to capitalize on red wheat. Wheat became the First State’s first cash crop and remains a large portion of the state’s agricultural economy today.

Of course, as time marched on, the state diversified with peaches and strawberries. But the next biggest shift came when Cecile Steele in Ocean View accidentally received 500 chickens, more than the average chicken farm at the time. That triggered farmers to raise the birds for their meat, rather than just eggs – sparking the Delmarva Peninsula’s $5 billion poultry industry. In 2017, it was about 75% of all of Delaware’s agriculture value.

In turn, that shifted farmers to harvest soybeans and corn for animal feed to fuel this booming industry. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that Delaware farmers harvested 172,000 acres of corn and 148,000 acres of soybean, which still isn’t enough to feed all the chickens in the state.

However, all three of those commodities are still important when it comes to international trade. About $106 million of broiler meat was exported in 2017, followed by $36 million in soybeans. Our biggest trade partners five years ago were Canada, followed by the United Kingdom and China, which notably is a major player when it comes to buying soybeans.

Delaware may be a small state in the large picture of things, ranking 41 in exporters in 2018. But the tragedy in Baltimore in late March shined a bright light on how interconnected the local farmer is to global trade, especially when I see the plants they’ve cropped to the north of Frederica while on the way to visit family.

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed, it also temporarily closed the Port of Baltimore for business. That port is small in the grand scheme of agriculture exports, but is among the top five for exporting containerized soybeans. That means grain operators like Lippy Brothers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore were momentarily at a standstill. That company shipped 3.7 million bushels of soybeans overseas, according to the Delmarva Farmer. Most of those bought were from farmers in the region, but a portion were grown themselves. Mountaire, which did not return the Delaware Business Times’ request for comment, noted that it also used the port to ship grain and chicken internationally in other outlets.

Farm equipment is also a prime product moved through that point, with many Midwestern farmers depending on it. Shipments for machines and parts are being re-routed to Norfolk and Savannah. But it’s still too early to see what the added costs to getting the equipment to its end point will total; freight costs from Baltimore jumped 3% in the first couple of days.

Delaware had a small role to play in responding to re-routing stalled consumer goods as the Port of Wilmington didn’t have enough capacity and its waters weren’t deep enough to handle larger cargo vessels. But if you widen the scope of the story, Delawarean businesses, particularly farmers, may begin to feel more direct impacts on this in the weeks to come.

While many trade outlets are reporting that the immediate impact should be minimal, the long-term impacts are unforeseen right now. There’s machines and fertilizer already in stock. What happens after, as the port had been closed for days and causing untold numbers of businesses to reroute their goods by air, train or truck, remains to be seen. Farms in Delaware are small in comparison to larger states like our neighbor Pennsylvania and the profit margins continue to be tight year after year. It may be the added cost to find the right equipment that could still hurt our agricultural businesses.

As Delaware Farm Bureau President Don Clifton told me, the temporary closure of the Port of Baltimore really did showcase how interconnected the trade industry is – and it is not limited to just our borders.

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