Gov. Jack Markell and Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee celebrated National Agriculture Week by announcing Wednesday that the Delaware’s Aglands Preservation Program has now permanently preserved 500 farms.
The program reached the 500-farm level during this year’s round of preservations. Delaware’s program has preserved the most acres of farmland per capita of any state in the country.
“Delaware is fortunate to have such a strong agricultural industry, and I am committed to helping our farmers prosper,” Markell said. “Agriculture provides thousands of jobs for Delawareans and pumps billions of dollars into our economy, but I know farmers are struggling because of the significant national economic downturn. My administration is going to work very hard to help farmers weather the historic economic challenges Delaware is facing.”
Delaware’s path to 500 easements began in July 1991 when the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation was formed with the adoption of House Bill 200. Participation in the program is voluntary and has two components. First, landowners join the program by creating an Agricultural Preservation District. An Agricultural Preservation District contains at least 200 contiguous acres which are devoted to agricultural and related uses. Any lands less than 200 usable (and contiguous) acres within three miles of an established district can be enrolled into the program as a District Expansion.
High-quality soils, significant agricultural infrastructure, historical and environmental significance are all factors that have been considered in the selection of farms for permanent preservation. Many of these farms are contiguous to already protected land and complement the State’s open space preservation efforts by creating natural buffers between development and public open space. Thus far, the program has been successful in striking a balance between two important goals:
• Preserving a critical mass of crop land, forest land, and open space to sustain Delaware’s number one industry and quality of life, and
• Providing landowners an opportunity to preserve their land in the face of increasing development pressures and decreasing commodity values.
Landowners who place their lands into Agricultural Preservation Districts agree to not develop their lands for at least 10 years, devoting the land only to agriculture and related uses. In return, the owners receive tax benefits, right-to-farm protection, and an opportunity to sell a preservation easement to the state which keeps the land free from development permanently.
The concept was embraced by many in the agricultural community early on as more than 127,471 acres were put in agricultural districts by 2001. The first conservation easement was acquired on November 30, 1994. It was donated. The first paid easement was acquired on May 31, 1996. The 250th easement was acquired on November 5, 2001.
In his remarks, Secretary Ed Kee gave a historical perspective saying, “During the Twentieth Century, Delaware had experienced a dramatic decrease in the amount of farmland. In the late 1800s we had more than one million acres of farmland -- seventy-nine percent of Delaware's land area was farmland. In the nineties, forty-six percent of our land was farmland."
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Kee continued, “If this trend continued, agriculture faced serious decline. Not only would farmers be out of business, but all of the allied businesses and occupations supported by production agriculture could disappear. Untold numbers of jobs were at stake because Delaware agriculture provides jobs…lots of them. Jobs such as on-farm employees, construction workers, seasonal workers, chemical and grain dealers, animal and other food processing workers and facilities, transportation workers, equipment/machinery dealers, material suppliers, and others. These jobs could only be protected if we maintained a significant base of production agriculture. Today, 41 percent of our land is in farmland, but we are still maintaining the critical land mass necessary to sustain and grow our agricultural industry thanks to our successful agricultural lands preservation program.”