Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee prepares for retirement

Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Just five of the 16 cabinet secretaries who made up Gov. Jack Markell’s first cabinet in January 2009 remain today, nearly eight years later.

Come Jan. 17, the Markell administration ends, and Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee will be enjoying retirement.

Although Mr. Kee will no longer oversee the 128-person department, he plans to stay involved with agriculture. After all, he’s been around the field — quite literally — in one way or another for nearly his entire life.

Even as a child, Mr. Kee said, he was “gravitating to food and food distribution,” the result of his father working for Hotel du Pont as a food-buyer.

As a teenager, he worked for Nassau Orchards in Lewes, and he went on to study agriculture at the University of Delaware.

He returned to the orchard after graduation before beginning a 30-year career with the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension that included four years as the Kent County agent.

In 2008, Mr. Kee moved to Hanover Foods, and in January 2009, he was named the new secretary of agriculture. Fittingly, the public announcement came at the Friends of Agriculture Breakfast Series.

“When this opportunity came, it was really a great opportunity to maybe continue that at a level, which you can impact more things being a cabinet secretary, and you can touch different parts of the agriculture industry,” he said, describing it as a “capstone experience.”

While Gov. Markell had a prior relationship with some of his new department heads, that wasn’t the case with him and Mr. Kee.

“Frankly, he had never heard of me till my resume showed up in the pile,” Mr. Kee said.

As secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Kee is responsible for assisting farmers, overseeing the Agricultural Lands Preservation Program and keeping the state’s $8 billion agriculture industry operating smoothly.

“Because Delaware is a small state and because I have been involved for over 30 years before I took the job and a lot of farmers knew me, you can do things on a personal basis,” Mr. Kee said.

Delaware has about 2,500 farms, which generate, through direct and indirect impact, billions of dollars and around 30,000 jobs.

The state has 500,000 acres of farmland — 40 percent of its total area.

While the department has a host of responsibilities, Mr. Kee sees the two most challenging ones over the past eight years as working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and preparing for the avian flu.

Although the state has avoided the latter — fortunately, the secretary said — combating nutrient runoff and other environmental issues is a job that never ends.

Kitty Holtz, president of the Delaware Farm Bureau, described Mr. Kee as a strong advocate for farmers in the First State.

“He shares the same goal and objectives as the Delaware Farm Bureau, which is to promote and protect agriculture in the state,” she said. “Ed has always had a big passion for agriculture.”

Mr. Kee cited the creation of a program allowing new farmers to borrow money at low rates, approval of legislation increasing weight limits for trucks transporting chickens and the continuation of the farmland preservation program as key accomplishments undertaken since 2009.

The state’s farmland preservation efforts are, for many, especially notable. Of Delaware’s 500,000 acres of farmland, about a quarter is permanently preserved from development.

Farmers sell their development rights to the state’s Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation, a step that, Mr. Kee said, “holds off urban and suburban sprawl.”

“It’s a signal ag is here to stay,” he said.

In addition to working with the employees of the department, Mr. Kee enjoys the opportunity to spend time out in the field.

“My whole career has been listening to farmers and then try to identify things that we could improve on,” he said.

He’s written several books about farming in the past, including a 2007 publication that provides a history of Delaware’s farms. During his career, he has also authored dozens of articles in journals covering vegetable science, horticulture and the economics of agriculture.

While he’s looking forward to spending more time with family after leaving his post, he will not be giving up his interest in and knowledge of agriculture. In addition to serving on several committees in the state, Mr. Kee is involved with Nuffield International, a group that sponsors a scholarship that allows students to study farming in different countries.

After more than four decades working in with farmers, he remains deeply passionate about agriculture.

“I have to say that I am as curious and excited and also in tremendous awe of farmers and agriculture as much today when I’m 65 as I was when I was in college and 20,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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