As America emerges from the worst recession in decades, we must continue to work to create jobs and grow businesses. On the Delmarva Peninsula, agriculture presents an opportunity to do both.

Agriculture is a pillar of the Delmarva economy, and 80 percent of this industry is poultry-related. In Delaware, poultry is a $3.2 billion industry, employing more than 13,000 people.

Sussex County, the birthplace of that industry, leads the U.S. in broiler production, producing more than 200 million birds annually. Despite this heritage, chickens can be raised and processed almost anywhere. It's imperative for us to implement policies to keep this vital industry thriving on Delmarva and to support farmers in being good environmental stewards.

As part of this effort, we held a summit in January in Delmar to explore ways to grow our region's poultry economy. Participants included Delaware's congressional delegation and Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin; poultry industry leaders; growers and trade associations; scientists; and state and local officials. The growers had a simple question for us: "Do you want us here?" We write today in part to answer: "Yes, we do!" We're dedicated to fighting for poultry's future on the peninsula.

To win that fight, we have focused on four critical areas: exports, employment, energy and the environment. Fortunately, exports have grown 90 percent during the past five years. One in five chickens grown in America is exported. Additionally, Congress and President Barack Obama approved free trade agreements last October with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, leveling the playing field for American workers, farmers and businesses disadvantaged by unfair tariffs and trade practices. Lower tariffs will help Delmarva's poultry companies sell more products overseas, generating an additional $10 million or more per year in export revenue. We're also working to reduce trade barriers in China, Russia and India while improving access for U.S. poultry products in promising markets like countries in Africa. Vigilant oversight of abusive trade practices by competitors is critical to further expanding our poultry industry, and we commend the administration's focus on export promotion and trade enforcement.

A skilled and reliable workforce is also essential to poultry businesses. Without an adequate workforce, Delmarva companies will be more likely to move to other states. We must ensure that employees possess skills to succeed while companies identify how to make this often difficult work more appealing.

Rising corn prices, which have increased 75 percent since June 2010 as demands for food and corn-based ethanol have increased, present another major challenge for the industry. Thankfully, companies like DuPont are developing technologies to help us to feed and fuel ourselves. These innovations will dramatically improve corn yields and increase the efficiency of corn as a feedstock for poultry.

Additionally, as we transition from a biofuels supply that relies on corn-based ethanol to one that predominately consists of advanced and cellulosic biofuels not made from kernels of corn, we will further reduce demands on corn. Government can help bring next-generation biofuels to market by ensuring our tax policies and research dollars -- along with government purchasing power and regulations -- support these efforts.

While we're advancing agriculture's capacity, we must be mindful of this industry's impact on our environment. Chicken litter disposal impacts regional land, air and water quality. Fortunately, much of the industry embraces its responsibility as an environmental steward. Through our Nutrient Management Commission, established in 1999, Delaware is a national leader in employing shared responsibility to develop and implement best practices to ensure the use of poultry litter as fertilizer is appropriate and safe.

Like many American industries, poultry has struggled recently due to challenges including the economic downturn, rising feed costs, increasing labor costs and anti-American trade practices. Despite this adversity, the industry endures and is poised to rebound stronger than ever.

The answer to the question of whether the poultry industry is welcome in Delmarva is a resounding "absolutely!" We will continue to work to address the challenges facing producers and seize opportunities to grow Delmarva's poultry industry. Agriculture is more than a pillar of our state's past, present and future economy. It's a way of life we must nurture so it can help feed millions in America and around the world.

This op-ed was published in The News Journal on March 2, 2012: http://www.delawareonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012203020335&nclick_check=1