Delaware Aglands

Delaware Aglands' August 2022 round preserved 3,827 acres on 54 farms.

Remember the old Joni Mitchell song lyrics, “They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot?” Well, in that number, “They took all the trees, and put them in a tree museum,” and if progress continues unabated in Delaware, this paradise might well become museum-worthy.

Delaware is expected to “pave over” 65,100 acres of farmland — the equivalent of losing 300 farms — in the next few years.

“Agland” is the term for these rich pastures, and agricultural properties near low-density residential development are eight times more likely to be developed.

The Center for the Inland Bays hosted its Citizen Advisory Café on Thursday evening, Feb. 16, in the center’s office at the Indian River Inlet on the Rehoboth Bay.

Jimmy Kroon, chief administrator at the Delaware Department of Agriculture, manages the state’s farmland preservation and talked about preservation. Elena Stewart, who is with the USDA and talked about its Natural Resource Conservation Program, joined the discussion. She is the agriculture conservation easement manager working in Dover. Michelle Schmidt, the CIB director of conservation and watershed planning, helped moderate and bring local color to the panel.

Christophe Tulou, executive director of the CIB, started the discussion by focusing on Infrastructure Act, Inflation Reduction Act and EPA resources as funding opportunities for the region to preserve open space.

“I would note that the IRA is really a clean-energy legislation that will make us all more climate-ready.”

Tulou said the Environmental Protection Agency has about $23 billion budgeted to deploy, and agricultural best-management practices and land use are “part of the solution to sequester carbon.”

“Let’s keep the carbon in our soils,” said Tulou, who was the secretary of DNREC when CIB was first established in 1994. “Next year will be our 30th anniversary, and we are focused on what we want to accomplish in the future.”

“We are seeing an all-around assault” on open space “from the ocean, storms and the rising inland waters, and the best line of our defense is our inland bays,” he added. “The bays are our best protection here in Eastern Sussex County.”

Kroon manages a Delaware Agriculture Department staff of some 170 people and is currently seeking a GIS specialist to manage Delaware’s farmland preservation program. The group has worked to preserve 1,179 farms since its inception — the equivalent of 11,000 acres of land, and provided permanent protection to 41,000 acres of forests. Kroon said the farmland preservation team has paid $18 million in easement dollars on 71 farms just in the area comprising the Sussex County inland bays region, locally.

“There are a great many climate benefits from farmland preservation,” Kroon said. “We can sequester carbon in the soil. Owners of preserved lands are two to three times more likely to implement these conservation practices and additional conservation on their lands.”

Farming in Delaware is a big business. In fact, it is the state’s No. 1 industry, creating 65,000 jobs. That means 1 in every 8 positions in Delaware is in the agricultural sector. Farming makes use of 525,000 acres of property, and agriculture has an economic valuation of $8.9 billion.

“We see ag everywhere — but not just in dollars and jobs,” said Kroon. He recounted that there are 2,300 family farms in the state, and “We did a record year of sales locally of some $3.7 million in direct food sales, including our farmers’ markets.”

However, Delaware also ranks fourth in the U.S. in loss of its pastural lands, losing 5.8 percent of farms to development.

“We are fourth in percentage of agricultural lands lost, from 2001 to 2016.”

The Agland Preservation Act of 1995 enabled permanent easements to protect farms. The first easement was actually land donated to the State. The Agland Preservation Foundation has its own board of directors and farmers and other landowners can sign-up through their preservation districts.

“Farm owners sign up and declare their land has to remain a farm,” said Kroon. “Easements are selected through a bid process for permanent purchase. We are appraising 360 farms in 2023.”

Delaware’s farmland preservation team receives bids from the landowners in a type of reverse auction bid process. The fair market value of the land is established, along with the agricultural production value, and the difference between these values is the appraisal for the easement.

“Owners submit offers to us, and we select their farms for easement protection,” said Kroon. “It removes all the politics about who is getting paid” to preserve. In 2023, the DDA received $20 million from its easement campaign, which kicked-off at the Delaware State Fair.

“We received 104 new applications this year, of the 360 total farms,” said Kroon, explaining that an easement is an “interest in the property. We don’t own it, because it is staying private.”

“The land must remain in some type of agricultural production,” said the chief administrator. “We are competing with developers for these lands. However, people here in this region are willing to put the money into protection.”

He said roughly 7,300 acres of farmland will be preserved with easements in this region.

Staff Reporter

Mike has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern and is a 25-year member of the National Press Club. He has won four national writing awards for editorial work. He is a native of McLean, Va., and lives in Millville.