Manager, Delaware Department of Agriculture Planning Section
As manager of the Delaware Department of Agriculture Planning section, Michael McGrath leads the farmland preservation effort in the state. McGrath has been involved in land use issues in Delaware for 30 years, and has led the farmland preservation effort since the program’s inception in 1991.
He was born on a small vegetable farm in Southern New Castle County where his mother and father grew greenhouse crops and sold produce at the King Street Farmers’ Market in Wilmington. Michael operated the family greenhouse business for five years, marketing vegetable plants and ornamentals to retail outlets the length of the Delmarva Peninsula. In 1974, he began working in the New Castle County Executive’s office with responsibility for coordinating county programs in Southern New Castle County. While in that position, he led county efforts in such areas as farmland assessment and economic development. He was lead planner for the county in downtown revitalization efforts in Middletown and projects to bring affordable housing to the area.
Since 1983 Mr. McGrath has managed the work of the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation and the Planning Section in the Delaware Department of Agriculture. The Foundation has preserved over 130,000 acres of farmland in Preservation Districts and almost 71,000 of those acres are now permanently preserved. Mr. McGrath leads the Department’s efforts in statewide land use planning and agricultural development. He and his wife, Joan, live in Smyrna, Delaware, and are the parents of three children.
The farmland preservation program in Delaware started in 1992. Like the nationally prominent farmland preservation programs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, it pays farmers cash to set aside that portion of their land rights that permits them to develop their land for housing and commercial purposes. Percentage-wise, Delaware ranks high nationally as a farm state. About 48 percent of our land area is in crops. That makes us the sixth highest state in the nation in terms of percentage of total land in crops. We are right up there with Iowa, Indiana and Kansas. Delaware is also in the top ten states nationally in terms of percentage of total land in urban areas, too.
How can both of these phenomena occur? The key in Delaware is that we have sharp land use edges along the Interstate 95 highway corridor and the Amtrak rail corridor where land goes from urban uses quickly to agriculture. For instance, there is an extensive area of rich farmland south of the Chesapeake and Delaware canal. Being in the top ten states in both the urban and crops land use categories sets the state up for land use conflict. The recently released data from the 2002 Census of Agriculture bears this out. The data show that Delaware lost 45,900 acres of farmland from 1997 to 2002. Some 8 percent of the state’s farms disappeared, and there was continuing consolidation, not just among small producers but among large producers as well.
Since its inception, the Delaware farmland preservation program has permanently preserved 76,500 acres. We have paid those farmers and imposed easements on land that leaves it in agriculture in perpetuity. Additionally, we have 132,500 acres in agricultural districts. Owners of that land have entered non-compensated agreements that say the land will remain in agriculture for ten years. Being in agricultural districts gives those farmers entrée to apply to sell their development rights for permanent preservation.
There is no shortage of farmers wanting to enter the program. At present, there are 35,000 acres waiting to be preserved. In 2004, we will preserve 55 additional farms, which is between 8,000 and 9,000 acres of prime land. There are more than 100 applications pending for permanent preservation.
Farmland preservation has positive impacts for the state economy. Money farmers have received from this fund has gone into new facilities to increase productivity and efficiency. It has been calculated that for every $1 million in farmland preservation expenditure, the state saves $10 million in future highway costs. Agricultural companies thinking of moving to Delaware look to the farmland preservation program to assure that the land base will be there in the future. Delaware has spent more than $76 million on farmland preservation so far. It will take $40 million to get land that is currently under application preserved. If we are to successfully counter the push to develop the state’s prime farmland in the future, we will need $20 million each year for the next ten years.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.