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Forum explores the future of farming

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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Farmers, environmentalists discuss how science can improve agriculture

Agriculture occupies more than 40 percent of Delaware's total land mass, and farm management decisions can significantly affect the state's landscapes and waterways.

That's why farmers and environmental scientists are working together to identify sustainable ways to grow bigger, better crops without increasing nutrient loads that harm the environment.

"We, like a lot of places, are wrestling with balance," said Dennis Forney, Cape Gazette publisher and moderator of Eden Delmarva's May 20 Clean Water Forum. "As we are trying to make our beautiful Delmarva Peninsula a place of abundance and take full advantage of what sunshine, nutrients, the earth, proper cultivation and management can provide, we also want to make sure we maintain our balance so that in our haste to get the great crops, or to have our wonderful towns, that we don't put too many nutrients in the ground and create an imbalance in our waterways."

Eden Delmarva advocates for healthy living, sustainability and educating the public about the use of renewable resources, sponsoring the forum to highlight policies, programs and alternative technologies to address water-quality issues and other challenges faced by Delmarva-area farmers.

With the state's 2,500 farms covering 510,000 acres and generating $1.2 billion annually in sales, Delaware Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee said farmers must keep an eye on manure and fertilizer uses, water-quality indicators and nutrient-management laws to keep the industry strong.

"My mission in my professional life is to think about the future of food," Kee said. "We are making decisions today as scientists, as policy makers, as citizens, farmers, environmental agencies, that impact our ability to feed our region and the world. I'm just saying we need to continue to produce food, and I'm convinced we can find ways to do this in an incredibly environmentally responsible way."

In 2014, Seaford-based farmer R.C. Willin of Willin Farms was checking on his wheat crops when he noticed something odd. In October, he found some areas of the field where the wheat was dying. It wasn't herbicide damage. The crops were getting enough water. Everything was on track with his management plan.

"The problem here was not any of the things that you might think of," Willin said.

The land where his wheat was planted can receive nearly 300 pounds of nitrogen, and should have had plenty left over from the previous crop, but there were only 5 pounds of nitrogen per acre available for his wheat crop. They hadn't leeched, and they weren't being absorbed by the new crop.

Despite using fertilizer to spread nutrients on his crops in a timely manner, it seemed like the nitrogen the plants needed to grow and thrive was disappearing into thin air. "What happened? Where did it go?" he said. "What's happening in our soils? Do we really understand how important our soils are to us and caring for them properly?"

Precision agriculture techniques — which allow farmers to use maps and other data points to hone in on how much water or nutrients are needed on specific plots of farmland, or find a specific seed among millions on a 200-acre field — are advancing, and helping farmers like Willin answer those difficult questions.

It turned out the nitrates needed for the wheat crop to prosper were being stolen by the biomass left over from the previous corn crop. Willin's data collection studies are taking a closer look at nutrients and management, an example of science-driven agriculture he says will pave the way for future success or failure of farms across Delmarva.

"I can tell you, you will not be in business if you're not aggressive in these areas," Willin said. "We're in a very difficult time right now in agriculture — the cost structure is not good for us. So if you're not finding a way to do it efficiently, the guy down the road will, and he is going to buy your farm."

The forum also explored financing for poultry growers, Maryland's phosphorous index, possible solutions for cleaning up Delaware's surface waters, transportation and Delaware's shellfish aquaculture program.

The forum featured area experts including Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary David Small discussing surface water clean up and aquaculture, and University of Delaware plant and soil science expert Gordon Johnson, who specializes in on-farm vegetable and fruit research trials and promoting improved production practices.

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Original Publication Date: June 3, 2016

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