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Food & Agriculture: A Better and Healthier Food Chain

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More than one in three acres of Delaware’s land mass is productive farmland. According to the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the state is “ranked No. 1 in the nation for agricultural value sold per acre” and is “a food production powerhouse on the cutting edge of some of the most modern advances in food and agriculture.”

Delaware’s status as an innovation powerhouse in agriculture is thanks in part to the presence of major agriscience companies like Belchim Crop Protection and Corteva Agriscience, and in part to work being done at the state’s two major research universities — the University of Delaware and Delaware State University. It’s also a result of the First State’s significant poultry infrastructure, which includes household names like Mountaire Farms and Perdue Farms.

In its most recent agricultural census, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the state had 2,302 farms that produced $1.5 billion in agricultural sales. “Agricultural sales in Delaware are high for a small state due in part to the high concentration of commercial [chicken] broiler sales in the area. Broiler production annually accounts for over 75% of Delaware’s value of agricultural production,” the report said, adding that the state produced about 263 million broilers in 2017.

While, as the saying goes, “that ain’t chicken feed,” a number of businesses and state officials believe that agriculture and food production still have myriad opportunities to innovate and grow.

“What I think of when I visit a major business is, what can we do to attract that business’s channel partners to locate nearby?” says William Pfaff, economic development director for Sussex County, where much of Delaware’s farmland is located. “For example, if I visit one of the chicken producers such as Perdue and I see them using a lot of, say, packing boxes, why not have those boxes produced here in Sussex County?”

By the same token, a lot of manufacturers of value-added products that keep poultry and field crops healthy already have research and production facilities at work in the state.

“It’s very important to focus on what growers need and translate that into potential market opportunities,” says Seva Rostovtsev, recently appointed VP and chief technology officer of FMC.

FMC’s existing presence in Delaware became more prominent when the company purchased Stine Laboratory west of Newark in 2017, and its footprint has grown since. The company has invested an addition $45 million in the site since the purchase, Rostovtsev says, although it “may not be something you see when you drive by.” FMC has long been a major player in the worldwide invention and production of crop-protection chemicals, and the Stine acquisition has helped strengthen that position.

As Rostovtsev notes, it usually takes about 10 years from the time that farmers’ needs are assessed and research begins until a new product is approved for sale. Looking 10 years ahead is especially difficult, he says, at a time when climate change keeps shuffling the deck. And there is always a constant race, Rostovtsev says, “to control resistance and new pests” whatever the crop is.

To stay ahead of the game, FMC is investing heavily in the development of future crops scientists. “We sponsor the annual Ag Day at UD,” he says, “and we are very involved with Delaware State. We put a lot of work into it, and they put a lot of work into it.” FMC scientists teach classes at Delaware State and serve on its agriculture advisory board, and the company provides scholarships.

And even if curious neighbors can’t see all the research investment inside Stine “as you drive by,” Rostovtsev notes that Stine does have a large experimental farm that is visible, especially the “amazing tractors” that the staff farmers swear are necessary.

Of course, there are many other food producers and their partners throughout the state who are working innovatively to make Delaware’s food chain better and healthier. Read on to meet a few of them.

302 Aquaponics: Growing Food Sustainably

From modest origins, Doug and Katie Wood’s business 302 Aquaponics has become a thriving, technology-enabled farming operation that grows not only lettuce and other vegetables inside a specialty greenhouse, but also fresh tilapia.

“It began as a hobby for Doug, growing hydroponics in a hoop house,” Katie Wood says, “and then he decided he wanted to do it full-time.” At the time, both of them were teachers in Kent County, where their business is located in Dover.

To get started, Doug attended a multiday seminar in Wisconsin conducted by Nelson and Pade, a producer of hydroponic structures and equipment who also helped design the building the Woods had in mind.

“We used a local contractor for the shell and wiring,” Katie Wood says, “but Doug did the rest. We started building in 2019, and we were opened for business in 2020 — two weeks before COVID hit.”

That crushed the Woods’ business plans to sell fresh produce and tilapia to local schools and restaurants. “So we got a truck [that looked] a lot like an ice cream truck and started driving around the neighborhoods selling vegetables and fish,” she says. Soon Katie Wood quit her job, and the two began selling at farmers markets and making special deliveries.

“It’s a very modern business,” Katie Wood explains. “The building is 20,000 square feet, with 18,000 square feet of that as the growing area. On a busy day, we will harvest 600 heads of lettuce. We have computer systems that monitor everything from ventilation and heat to the temperature of the water in the fish tanks and our walk-in refrigerators.”

The operations at 302 Aquaponics were completely self-funded, Katie says, and the company does all its own distribution. It has two full-time employees and nine part-time. Lettuce has been the big workhorse crop, although it took some time to find the right varieties.

“We had some early problems with tomatoes, cucumbers and squash,” she says, “and it took tilapia some time to catch on. It’s not a fish that everyone was familiar with. And we are constantly experimenting with new vegetables.” 302 Aquaponics recently added honey to its product line, but the bees live outside, the only farm animals on the property “except for a few rescue goats,” Katie Wood says.

The operation is quite sustainable, including the tilapia operation —there is not much water needed in fish farming once the large tanks are filled. And the fish waste has agricultural uses. All in all, 302 Aquaponics uses about a tenth of the water it would take to grow plants in the ground. Its approach also eliminates the need to weed or till soil, there are no soil-borne diseases, and no pesticides or chemicals are used.

As for the next phase of its operations, that’s still an open question, but expansion is something the Woods have thought about.

“I don’t want to be that dude in the end who says, ‘I should have done that,’” says Doug Wood.

Genuardi Food Lab: Growing Beyond Ice Cream

The University of Delaware’s UDairy Creamery began life as a humble place for students to buy ice cream on a hot summer day. Since then, it’s turned into so much more.

The Creamery has expanded in scope to become a place for students to do food research and learn entrepreneurial and food-production skills as a stepping-stone to industry jobs or founding their own food-industry startups.

Part of the 3,600-square-foot Charles A. Genuardi and Patricia Genuardi Food Innovation Laboratory, today the facility has additional food production capabilities, including a cheese processing area as well as a student test kitchen and the future potential for food-development projects with businesses.

Many universities have student-operated creameries, and the one on South College Avenue began operations in 2011 as a skills teaching facility within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), according to Jennifer Rodammer, plant manager for the creamery and laboratory.

“In 2015, we began making plans to expand the processing area to have cheese production,” Rodammer says, “and we applied for and received an internal Unidel Foundation grant, but we also did additional fundraising. We started processing cheese when [we] became the Genuardi Food Innovation Lab four years ago.” Construction on the facility is now complete. Additionally, in 2021, the creamery opened a second shop on Main Street in Newark and expanded its menu to include sandwiches and other light food items.

At the time of dedication, CANR Dean Mark Rieger said the idea behind the lab was “to start an entrepreneurial activity where our students can learn how to innovate and run a business. The primary product of the Creamery is always the well-educated student; the byproduct is the ice cream, and now we will have a whole lot more byproducts with cheese, and eventually butter and yogurt.”

“Like with ice cream, we sell cheese for purchase and also use it on sandwiches at our Main Street store inside the college’s Barnes & Noble bookstore,” Rodammer says. That facility became available when Barnes & Noble decided not to continue with its own food facility there after the pandemic.

The Genuardi Lab and the Creamery have five full-time employees, plus about 60 students working part-time in addition to five to six interns from various fields within the university doing research. “Their research has varied from analyzing sales to trying to figure ways to better handle inventory,” Rodammer says. “In addition to our test kitchen, we recently opened a sensory lab and hope it will attract research projects with outside firms.”

Not that the ice cream business has melted away. “We produce about 1,000 to 1,500 gallons of ice cream a week during peak,” Rodammer says, “and we supply the dining halls in addition to our two stores.” And, she says, students get to experiment on what might be the next Rocky Road or Cookies & Cream.

Suzuki Farm: Spotting (and Filling) a Need

What started off for Ken Suzuki as a DIY exercise built out of frustration in trying to find the same vegetables he grew up eating in Japan has turned into a successful 40-year-old farming venture in the countryside near Delmar. In an area known for corn, tomatoes and chicken, Suzuki’s farm has quietly cornered a niche market.

“I came from Japan in 1974, and when I went to the grocery store, I couldn’t find any of the vegetables I wanted. I went to New York, and they said, ‘Why don’t you grow your own?’” Suzuki says. “I said, ‘I’m not a farmer. I never grew anything in Japan!’”

While it’s true he never commercially grew anything in Japan, the Gamagori native did go to an agricultural high school and had been trained in another branch of agriculture — poultry. At that time, there was a big job market for “chicken sexers,” someone who could quickly determine whether a baby chick was female and could be kept to lay eggs, and Suzuki was good at it. First he worked in Colombia, but eventually he made his way to the Delmarva Peninsula to work for Perdue Farms.

But the seed to grow Japanese vegetables was planted. The job at Perdue had its financial limits, so he started his own garden, first near Salisbury, MD, and then at Delmar. Today, Suzuki Farm grows more than 30 varieties of vegetables, most with their roots in Japan. The farm stretches over 28 acres, including nine greenhouses, each about 4,500 square feet, and ships fresh produce to restaurants and markets, mainly in New York City and Washington, DC. Suzuki Farm also maintains its own small fleet of two trucks to deliver multiple times a week to each market.

“We tried to sell at local markets,” he says, “but people locally didn’t know what to do with Japanese vegetables.” Suzuki Farm does, however, sell vegetables in larger quantities online, and began last year using UPS as a carrier. Ken Suzuki is known as a meticulous groomer of vegetables and for working long hours. “We have about 12 people working here full and part-time,” he says.

Insect control is mainly organic, using mixtures of plant-based products such as Chinese chives, Japanese parsley, Japanese mugwort, green onion, pickled scallion as well as pyroligneous acid.

This year Suzuki will be 76 years old, and since no one in his family was interested in taking over the business, he sold it in 2021 to Food’s Style USA, Inc., a franchisee of Hokkaido Ramen Santouka restaurants, which is exploring ways to expand the business’s reach.

“I have no plans to retire,” he affirms, and while Suzuki Farm has a new manager, he readily defers to Suzuki’s opinions. The accidental farmer of Sussex County is not yet ready to abandon his plants.

How Do You Brew: Paying it Forward in Entrepreneurship

Most people who drink beer, wine, cider, mead or even kombucha have probably thought, “I could make this in my basement!”

If they live in Delaware, there’s a good chance they will go looking for supplies at the How Do You Brew (HDYB) store located in Pencader Park in Newark. For people who want to brew their own, HDYB has all sorts of products — everything-in-one box kits, home brewery equipment, instruction books and plenty of free advice. Not only that, but the company offers classes, sponsors field trips to local commercial breweries and wineries and provides needed encouragement to entrepreneurs who want to start their own beverage businesses.

“I’m a little late to the game,” says co-owner Jason Scott, who with David Woodside bought the existing business in March 2018 after the original owners decided to retire.

So how did he learn about brewing? “I had some prior experience,” he says with a laugh. “I had made my own hard cider, but when it exploded in the refrigerator, my wife told me, ‘Never again!’” So, Scott says, “The new business was a long learning curve. It took me a while to internalize all that knowledge, although the prior owners had stocked the store. Still,” he says, “with all the trends and changes in fashion for brewing, it’s all a moving target.”

The brewing community in Delaware is a friendly one, he says, and even commercial beer makers are helpful. “Most of them started as home brewers, so they understand what it’s like for our customers who are learning from scratch.” For example, neighbor Midnight Oil Brewing Co. hosts an HDYB home brew contest at its brewery.

“And I have some winemaking customers who are making very good wine and are considering getting in the business,” he says, a sign that his store may also be a business incubator.

“Cider is the easiest to make,” Scott says, “so that’s often the starting place for beginners.” With wine and beer, he says, many people who come to How Do You Brew are from families whose ancestors are from European countries where making wine or beer in the basement is common. “Mead, which is made from honey, is tricky,” he says, “harder to ferment and also has costlier raw materials.”

In 2021, Scott applied for and received a Division of Small Business EDGE (Encouraging Development, Growth & Expansion) Grant to “build and market a new retail space in Smyrna that will double as a warehouse and distribution center for the growing business, expanding their reach into Kent and Sussex counties,” according to the award announcement. That project, he says, is still fermenting.

“But we are doing more events downstate,” Scott says, “including our second Smyrna Craft Beverage Fest this summer.” And teaching the next generation of Delaware’s beverage entrepreneurs.

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