Let’s consider how deeply connected our North Fork, and Long Island overall, is to farming.
When we find ourselves annoyed with a farmer’s deer fences, or noise from their equipment, or dust from plowing, or the myth that farmers are merely rich people who farm as a hobby, try a closer look: agriculture is one goose that is forever laying our region’s golden eggs. Note that good relations in a community can affect the atmosphere where public policy for agriculture is constructed.
More importantly, young people need to acquire a positive image of farms and farming, hopefully where some might actually take a career interest. According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture of 2012, the average age of the Suffolk County farmer is 57.6 years and rising. 85 percent of those who are 65 and older have no young farmers with them to take over. It will be hard to find and retain the next generation of farmers on the East End. Why should that concern each of us?
Let’s start with our local economy, where so little manufacturing of anything happens anymore. The same U.S. Ag Census tells us there are about 604 farms in Suffolk County, averaging 60 acres in size, covering 39,000 acres. Of those acres, 20,000 are in a county or town or non-profit organization’s program where the development rights have been preserved. We must hold onto those remaining 19,000 acres, and for those interested, an excellent study online tells how, entitled, “Suffolk County Agriculture & Farming Protection Plan-2015.”
These farms annually generate about $239.8 million or $6,150. per acre in Suffolk, 10 times the state average of $616 per acre. According to a survey published in the “State of the Suffolk County Agricultural Industry in 2013,” most of our farmers’ revenues (67 percent) are spent locally, creating a valuable economic spinoff.
And speaking of spinoff, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 5,056 of our workforce are directly employed full-time in agriculture on the East End. Unlike large scale producers in other regions, most Suffolk County farm products are sold locally. In fact, a growing trend, also the subject of misguided complaints, is where farmers make very needed, additional revenue with direct retail sales to the local consumer with farm stands, “U-pick” farms, and the like. These help farmers contend with an array of problems.
For starters, there’s little access for them to affordable, productive farmland in Suffolk. Further, estate taxes can wipe out family farms owing to the high value of a decedents’s farm (but if one dares talk of estate tax reform these days, for shame – that would be helping “the rich”). Property taxes also hammer farmers, even with various tax mitigation programs. Add to that how farm production costs climb almost by the week. Residential encroachment, extreme weather events, environmental regulations unseen elsewhere, relentless shortages of farm labor and scarce local financing, are some of our local farmers’ further obstacles.
Yet with such dark clouds, the same survey of farmers shows some blue skies of cautious optimism. Most expect to enlarge their operations, and more than 80 percent of farms continue to be family-owned rather than rented. Many find fiscal refuge in “agritourism,” with on-site tours, tasting rooms, hayrides, animal displays, corn mazes, fresh-baked products, etc. In some instances, a balance needs to be struck between these activities and the rights of their residential neighbors, but generally these work well for all.
There is another plus for our agricultural industry – its remarkable diversity of production. From nursery/greenhouse/floriculture/sod and poultry/eggs, as well as vegetables/melons (all these are our largest categories, by far) to fruits, nuts, berries, and grapes; from livestock, hay, tobacco, hops and other grains, along with our growing aquaculture, East End farms boast such variety as to be found almost nowhere else in the state or even the nation.
There is more that farmers can do to help themselves and all of us in the process. One step is stronger promotion of their local products. “Grown on Long Island” labels should be everywhere. Thirty years ago, a county legislator worked with the L.I. Farm Bureau, which is the farmers’ chamber of commerce, to sponsor a design contest that resulted in the currently known (but not well-known enough) logo. That legislator also drafted a detailed memo on how the farm bureau could best copyright and promote the logo. The farm bureau, or at least one of its earlier directors, doesn’t want to share credit for that, but what’s more important is that they don’t seem to be sharing the logo either. It’s far less visible these days. So get it out there with vigor! Then watch the loyal response from local and seasonal residents.
For those non-farmers among us who doubt any future for agriculture here, let them reflect on this: Suffolk County (almost entirely on the East End) is New York’s number one in floriculture, nursery and sod production, more than half of all sold in the state. We have the same top-in-the-state ranking with production of pumpkins, tomatoes and cantaloupe. We’re second in N.Y. for spinach, peppers and lettuce, and third for grapes, broccoli, tomatoes and herbs. Not bad considering that N.Y. is a major farming state in the U.S.
Finally, let’s all reflect on the far higher property tax burdens suffered on L.I. where farming has evaporated. Consider as well the high farming revenues interconnected with tourism, employment and the overall economic health of the North Fork. Also, let’s consider our remarkably rich soil, access to wealthy markets in NYC and the Hamptons, our climate, the diversity of production already discussed, and valuable support from local government, particularly Suffolk County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension.
With all these considered, let’s encourage our youth to appreciate farming by appreciating it more ourselves. Our North Fork schools should teach our youngsters much more about farming, with learning-based exposure, in grades K-12, with ample grant monies available from the USDA. Internships such as that sponsored by the Peconic Land Trust on the South Fork deserve major expansion, where Extension, SCCC and Hallockville Museum Farm could pool their remarkable resources. And let’s see how farmers and all of us might better promote local farm products. After all, to a significant degree, the North Fork’s future may well lie in its past.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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