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Food & Agriculture: A Staple Industry Expands in New Directions

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Delaware’s agricultural industry is a powerhouse driven by traditional crops such as field corn, soybeans and potatoes and, most significantly, poultry. The state’s poultry processors, such as Mountaire Farms, Perdue Farms and Allen Harim, generate more than $1 billion in annual sales and represent some 70% of Delaware’s cash farm income.

In recent years, significant advances in technology have been aiding farmers. The ability to spray crops in more target-ed ways is important, as is the usage of drones to survey a reason farms that need immediate attention. The University of Delaware conducts key research in this area at its 350-acre farm lab and has spawned businesses such as TRIC Robotics, which provides farmers with weed- and pest-killing robots.

Meanwhile, other companies are helping to produce crops that can “protect themselves,” says Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse. For example, agribusiness giant FMC aims to discover and develop molecules capable of fending off disease, pests, fungi, parasites and other threats to crop health.

It all adds up to a strong response to challenges and an ability to keep meeting the needs of Delaware’s consumers, who want more and more of what the state’s farms can bring to market.

“We have more demand than we have producers,” Scuse says.

In fact, demand for local products has risen even as supply chain issues have made it more challenging to get those products to market, he adds. These supply woes have kicked into overdrive an already growing desire among consumers to eat local and buy food products that are grown or made in-state.

Dave Burris’ company Henlopen Sea Salt recently transitioned to a fossil-fuel-free method of salt production. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CAROLINE J. PHILLIPS

Small businesses such as Henlopen Sea Salt have benefited from this trend — in fact, Henlopen is on the verge of a significant expansion so it can meet skyrocketing consumer demand, while also innovating its production process to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels.

Other companies of all sizes have had to stay nimble to keep up with pandemic challenges — Mountaire Farms by finding new markets, and restaurant group SoDel Concepts by implementing a comprehensive damage-control plan that allowed it to grow and hire while other restaurants were shutting down.

Delaware’s food and agriculture sector also has notably diversified in recent decades. Important trends include the arrival of microbrewing, with Milton-based Dogfish Head at the vanguard, and the launch of marijuana cultivation, following the legalization of marijuana products for medical use. First State Compassion is a pioneer in this space, and one of the first to introduce Delawareans to the joys of edibles.

With old stalwarts finding new ways to thrive and new subsectors joining the industry, the sky is the limit for innovation in food and agriculture.

Henlopen Sea Salt: Making Salt the Clean-Energy Way
How hard can it be to make salt out of sea water? The short answer: harder than you might think.

Dave Burris, a self-professed food-ie, first tried to make salt about 10 years ago, when he took an empty milk jug to the beach in Lewes and fetched some water, which he boiled on his stove back home. “It was terrible,” he says. “It was sort of like salt, but very grainy and gray.It wasn’t very appetizing.”

Eventually, Burris got better at it. Fast forward to today, and his sea salt is a sought-after commodity among retailers, restaurant owners and local foodies in Delaware and surrounding states. In fact, Henlopen Sea Salt, the company Burris officially launched in 2020, can’t keep up with the demand for its product.

“Every sale we’ve done so far has sold out,” he says. At one of the company’s online sales around Christmas time, the available product was gone within four minutes. In addition to the quality of the product, Burris believes the high demand is due to a shift in consumer thinking brought on by the pandemic. “When people started not being able to get certain things, they started to think more about where their food comes from, and how they can get it,” he says. “That got a lot of people started on the journey of sourcing their food locally.”

Over the course of 2021, it became clear that Henlopen Sea Salt needed away to make significantly larger batches of its product.

Burris had also started thinking about a way to make his process greener. The process Henlopen has used up until recently still involved boiling, but also filtering and periods of rest to ensure a delicate, flaky salt product that lacks the chemical aftertaste of corporate salt. “One of the chefs who uses my salt a his restaurant says it tastes like the waves that wiped him out when he was seven,” Burris says.

However, there is a different way to make the product: using solar energy and air flow to evaporate water naturally. Unlike the previous process, this new way of making salt requires no fossil fuels.Between the need for more product and for a space to try out the solar process, Henlopen Sea Salt needed to find a new location.

Eventually, one of the company’s customers, Story Hill Farm in Frankford, offered up space onits property. Burris’ goal of becoming more energy-efficient aligned well with the farm’s mission of supporting sustainable farming practices.

By early spring 2022, Henlopen SeaSalt had built a hoop house on the farm’s property that can hold 2,400 gallons of salt water at a time. The result, Burris estimates, should be more salt in a single batch than he was able to make over all of 2021 using his old process.

The first batch of salt made in the hoop house should be ready by early June. In the meantime, Burris says, “I’m just living for the day when I don’t have to say ‘no’ to anybody who wants my product.”

Cathy Bassett

Mountaire Farms: Staying Nimble Amid Global Challenges
When Cathy Bassett refers to Mountaire Farms’ strong ability to pivot during difficult times, she isn’t exaggerating. Throughout the past two years, the nation’s fourth-largest chicken company has faced pandemic-caused problems — like everyone — but also other challenges that have required creativity and flexibility.

“When things change, we are able to shift,” says Bassett, Mountaire’s director of communications and community relations.

The need for corporate elasticity began in early 2020, when the pandemic closed down many restaurants around the area and the country. All of a sudden, Mountaire products that had been purchased for use in that area required new markets. Fortunately, the need for people to stay home led to larger sales to grocery stores, which take Mountaire chickens and package them under their own labels.

That pivot was a success, but as 2022 has progressed, Mountaire has been forced to make other necessary switches. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced those two countries to curtail the production and distribution of poultry products to markets in Africa. Although Mountaire supplies chicken to more than 60 countries worldwide, it didn’t have a particularly robust presence on that continent. It has been increasing its exports to countries there over the past several months.

Another issue that has required a significant change has been the avian influenza that has been impactingDelaware’s poultry producers. When people hear about that, they get skittish, so Mountaire has had to contend with barriers put up by countries hoping to avoid exposure.

“We are not able to sell our chicken paws in China,” Bassett says. “The challenges of avian influenza are not just on the supply side. It’s where you can sell. Countries look for reasons to shut down trade.

“We are looking for new markets for the paws and trying to find domestic markets. We’re still making chicken paws. There are still two feet on every chicken that comes into our plants.”

Mountaire’s ability to adapt has helped it maintain good relationships with clients and a strong bottom line. Despite everything that happened, 2021 was profitable for the company, and it has an optimistic outlook for 2022.

“We are a finely-oiled machine here,” Bassett says. “We are able to pivot and change up what we do to give customers what they need. That’s a big part of our success.”

SoDel Concepts: Growing a Restaurant Business During COVID (Yes, Really)
The SoDel Concepts restaurant group emerged from the pandemic not just as a survivor, but with more restaurants than ever before. The genesis of that resilience dates back to 2009.

After the swine flu epidemic cost some in the restaurant field substantial money and even their very existences, insurance carriers decided to drop pandemics from the list of disasters they covered. Specific policies were available, but after SoDel President Scott Kammerer evaluated the cost-benefit relationship, he decided it wasn’t worth it.

“But it made me think that if the insurance companies thought [a pandemic]was possible, I had better get a plan,” Kammerer says.

Scott Kammerer

The company put one in place, and even though the past two-plus years certainly haven’t been easy, the restaurant group moves forward with 17 properties, three concession operations and a desire to keep growing in the near future. (SoDel’s eateries are already a staple at Delaware’s beach resorts, with well-known restaurants including Matt’s Fish Camp, Blue coast Seafood Grill and the casual Surf Bagel.)

Before COVID hit, SoDel employed 750 people. Now, it has 1,250 people on the payroll. In other words, the plan worked.

At the outset of the pandemic, one of the first things Kammerer and his team did was call all of their landlords to let them know what was happening and how things could be difficult for awhile. Next came calls to vendors to set up expanded credit plans. SoDel went to the bank to get a larger and longer-term credit line. And every member of the executive group went into the kitchen to work. The company streamlined its communications practices and added software that allowed for curbside to-go menus.

“Any company that has survived a pandemic has a better, more stream-lined communications operation,” Kammerer says.

One other thing that helped the SoDel properties is that they are chef-driven. Unlike chains, which make the same things at every restaurant, Kammerer’s spots have flexibility. If certain ingredients are unavailable, chefs can pivot to something else, using the available materials.

The future looks pretty strong for SoDel. It has opened four new restaurants since last October, and Kammerer says he would like to expand the number of Surf Bagel spots from three to seven, open a third brewery and a fourth Matt’s Fish Camp. Some might think that’s overly ambitious, but Kammerer believes that moving forward at all times is the only way to go.

“My mindset is you grow in good times and bad,” he says. “Once you get to a certain critical mass, everything is an opportunity. If something unusual happens, it becomes an opportunity.”

Especially for those who have planned for it.

FMC: Supporting Farmers So That Fewer People Go Hungry
When Dr. Kathleen Shelton speaks about FMC’s future and how it plans to become an even bigger player in helping the world’s farmers be as efficient as possible, she begins with two basic assumptions.

“We know we don’t want people to go hungry, and we want farmers to make as much money as possible from the land they farm,” she says.

Dr. Kathleen Shelton

Shelton is chief technical officer and executive vice president at FMC, which is based locally at the Stine Research Center in Newark, but has presences throughout the world. The company, which acquired a portion of DuPont’s agricultural business in 2017, provides crop protection solutions and is committed to meeting the challenges facing farmers. It employs more than 400 people in the state.

“We know we don’t want people to go hungry, and we want farmers to make as much money as possible from the land they farm.”

Its goal is to discover and develop molecules capable of fending off disease, pests, fungi, parasites and other threats to crop, seed and soil health. At Stine, scientists are able to create new molecules but also find those already in the soil or on crops that can be converted to treatments capable of aiding farmers’ efficiency.

“We think we reduce losses the farmers absorb from pests [of all kinds] by controlling them,” Shelton says.

It’s not a quick process. Shelton reports that it can take 12 to 13 years fora chemical molecule to go through the development and appeal process, so FMC must be continually looking ahead and anticipating farmers’ needs. “It’snot just about how things are today,” Shelton says.

As Shelton looks ahead, she sees a pair of significant challenges. The firstis climate change. As the planet warms, land that was once arable could lose its ability to produce food in a way that is profitable. A second major concern involves the efficiency of farming. Since it is such a labor-intensive pursuit, increases in the costs of supplies, fuel and other materials could make it difficult for farmers to make a living.

However, since FMC is constantly looking ahead, it can apply new technologies to farming’s biggest issues to make sure it remains a viable industry.“We are using artificial intelligence and machine learning,” Shelton says.

“We also have collaborations with startups and other partners that produce a breadth of relationships that can provide help for farmers.”

In the meantime, FMC is also looking inward to help solve the climate problems that be devil farmers. By investing in renewable energy, working with third-party suppliers to reduce their own emissions and making a number of other operational adjustments, the company hopes to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

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