Ten young Delaware farm families and individuals are on their way to owning their dreams with help from a bold, innovative and unique economic development program designed to boost agribusiness in the First State.
The farmers from Kent and Sussex Counties all received help purchasing land -- nearly 900 acres total -- from the Delaware Young Farmers Program, marking its first year.
The no-interest loan program was launched in July 2011 by Gov. Jack Markell as a way to reduce the capital investment for young people looking to set up agribusiness operations. It was funded through a $3 million allocation in the fiscal 2012 budget.
"These young farmers exemplify a new generation of agricultural entrepreneurs who are strengthening Delaware's economic future," Markell said at an announcement of the program's success, held Wednesday at the University of Delaware Carvel Research and Education Center.
"They are planting the seeds of economic prosperity in our farm economy, paying dividends for years to come in the form of preserved farmland and a thriving agricultural sector," Gov. Markell said. "Supporting our farmers and preserving agricultural land is critical to our commitment to expand jobs and grow opportunities for all. This is a legacy we can be proud of."
Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee said Delaware's investment will pay off for generations to come.
"Many young people are turned off from a career in farming because of the high cost of entering the business," Kee said. "This commitment shows them that there is support and hope to achieve their aspirations. It also is a sign to agribusinesses that the Markell Administration is firmly in the corner of farmers, and that agriculture has a bright future in the First State."
The land purchased with help through the program will also be permanently preserved as farmland through Delaware's Agricultural Lands Preservation Program.
The average age of a Delaware farmer is 55; the average age of the Young Farmers Program participants is 26. The participants include a husband and wife, a group of two brothers and a group of three brothers partnering in the program, for a total of 10 new farms. Five are starting up their operations, while five include family transfers of land. Eight are from Sussex County and two from Kent County.
Among the farmers in the program are husband and wife Phillip and Cara Sylvester, who used the loan to help expand their Felton-area farming operation where they grow corn, soybeans, wheat and lima beans.
"The Young Farmers Program helped us do that earlier than we otherwise would have been able to," Cara Sylvester said. "We saw this as a great opportunity."
They used the loan to help purchase 98 acres of a farm that has been in Phillip's family since the 1950s. They had purchased 40 acres of the farm a few years ago, but their dream of owning the entire property had been on hold.
The couple is deeply involved in local agriculture. Phillip, 29, is the Kent County Cooperative Extension Agriculture Agent, and Cara, 27, is a loan officer with MidAtlantic Farm Credit.
The lawmakers who co-sponsored the legislation creating the Young Farmers' Program both praised its first-year success, saying it helps meet a critical need.
"We must encourage young people to seek out agriculture and I think the Delaware Young Farmer's program is such an example for the rest of the nation can use to meet that goal," said state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr., D-Bethany Beach, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "With only 2 percent of our nation growing food for the U.S. and the world, it and programs like it are critical to the future."
"When we created this program, we were hoping to encourage young people to invest in farming and take up one of the oldest professions out there," said state Rep. John C. Atkins, D-Millsboro, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. "Farming is a billion-dollar industry in Delaware. I'm happy to see these 10 young farmers participating in the program and hope that this is the start of a long, successful career for them. I hope the program continues to help young people get started with purchasing their farms."
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Austin Short, who oversees the program and Delaware's Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation, said another round of applications will be accepted beginning August 1, with $3.3 million available for the new round. Thirty farmers have already been pre-qualified for the new round. While not required, pre-qualification helps farmers ensure that they meet the criteria for the program and gives Department of Agriculture officials a way to gauge interest.
"We are excited to see the interest and the initiative that has been shown by these young farmers," Short said. "This is a way to help young people overcome the high cost of land and enter into agriculture."
The first program participants were able to purchase land near Felton, Farmington, Greenwood, Seaford, Bethel, Laurel, Gumboro, Millsboro and Selbyville.
Eligible farmers must be between the ages of 18 and 40, have at least three years of farming experience and a net worth of no more than $300,000. The loan money is used to help purchase farmland in Delaware that contains at least 15 tillable acres zoned for agricultural use. Farmers must actively use the land for agricultural purposes for the term of the loans. The 30-year, no-interest loans may fund up to 70 percent of the value of the property's development rights, defined as the difference between full market value and agricultural value, up to a maximum of $500,000.