Categorized | Suffolk Close-up

Saving Farmland

Posted on 08 March 2013

by Karl Grossman

With Suffolk County government continuing to undergo financial problems, what has remained a solid, sustainable industry here — agriculture — should be celebrated and fully supported.

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Great Neck resident, issued a report last year detailing the great importance of farming here. It noted that Suffolk County remains the top agricultural county in the state in value of the produce grown and sold — $243 million a year. And this didn’t include sales involving Suffolk’s now world-class wine industry. Suffolk is the state’s largest producer of tomatoes, pumpkins and cauliflower, the third largest producer of strawberries, grapes and peaches.

The report stressed the link between farming and tourism. It spoke of “agritourism” and how not only do “many farms on Long Island attract visitors…buying fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables and nursery products,” they also “offer an array of recreational activities.”

Moreover, Suffolk’s 600 farms allow it to remain a green, very livable place.

Mr. DiNapoli traveled to Suffolk as he issued the report and in a farm field declared: “We should be vigilant in preserving the farmland that we have…Not everyone appreciates what agriculture means to Long Island. Anyone who thinks this is something from the past is missing the reality of today.”

Agriculture in Suffolk, although booming, remains threatened.

“We have 34,000 farming acres in Suffolk County and less than half are committed to being preserved,” notes Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

“We are worried about the land base. We have said for years that we need a critical mass of farms or we lose our suppliers.” And this problem of a dwindling number of businesses selling seeds, tractors and other farm equipment “is starting to enter the picture,” said Mr. Gergela. And, “if real estate gets hot again, there’ll be stiff competition” for the land now being farmed and not preserved under the county and local preservation programs. The development pressures that led to western Long Island’s farmland being paved over will be on the loose again

The Long Island Pine Barrens Society, on Earth Day last year, came out with a “white paper” titled: “Slow Progress. Land Preservation Inadequate to Reach Goal.” It warned that the “final build-out” on Long Island can be expected in 2025 when “every last acre on the island is either earmarked for development or preservation.” Long Islanders want preservation, it said. It pointed to a poll of Long Islanders done at the “height of the recession,” in 2009, that found that “eight out of ten favored maintaining — or even expanding — the current preservation programs.”

Farming is the goose that lays the golden egg for Suffolk — year after year.

“But the Bellone administration and an uncommitted county legislature see only one kind of economic development — real estate development,” charges Richard Amper, the society’s executive director. “They are pushing something that is not sustainable, that is based on the consumption of a finite amount of land,” he declares. “You can’t develop on an island forever. In fact the administration’s proposed solution to Long Island economic problems is to promote the development that caused our economic problems in the first place. Overdevelopment has increased taxes for government services, exceeded our capacity to protect our water supply and contributed to the suburban sprawl that undermines Long Island’s community character.”

“Long Island has to wean itself off the bulldozer,” declares Mr. Amper.

Among Suffolk legislators critical of the county’s farmland preservation program is Tom Cilmi of East Islip who in the Suffolk County News last year published an essay: “Should We Rethink Farmland Purchases?” He sees better possible ways to help the area’s economy.

Mr. Bellone tells me: “Agriculture is an important industry and a vibrant part of Long Island’s tourism economy. I am committed to conserving and protecting viable farmlands and the improvement of such lands for their agricultural use. In 2012, the county acquired the development rights on 12 farms totaling 515 acres at a cost of $23.9 million.”

Farming in Suffolk is more important than ever with higher transportation costs and people wanting good, fresh food grown close to home. It’s a primary, multi-million dollar, sustainable industry which “government at every level,” says Mr. Amper, “should do more for.”

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One Response to “Saving Farmland”

  1. Tom Cilmi says:

    For context….here is the article to which Mr. Grossman referred when he called me “critical” of farmland preservation. I ask questions. I suggest that a small portion of what we’ve spent might have been used another way to generate more money for preservation among other things. And at the end I clearly state that the program has been certainly “worthwhile.” Below is the article. Judge for yourself. Farming is a critical component in Suffolk’s economy. To suggest I believe otherwise is simply incorrect. Feel free to email your comments to tom.cilmi@suffolkcountyny.gov.

    Over the last decade, Suffolk County, through its taxpayers, has purchased nearly 3,000 acres worth of “development rights” for farmland, costing taxpayers more than $200 million. For those unfamiliar, the theory behind this practice is to compensate the farmer/land owner for the value of his land to preserve farming, and to preserve open space by preventing the owner from selling his land to a developer.
    What sometimes happens is that these farms go fallow (unfarmed), simply because of farming economics and the challenges of nature. It’s an indictment of the system that no one really knows to what extent this occurs, but I digress.
    In light of our current economy, and in light of recent legislation proposing to re-evaluate the parameters of our open space programs, I pose these questions for consideration: What would Suffolk County’s economy be like today if we had taken just a small portion of that money (say
    20 percent—the equivalent of $4 million annually) and used it in some way, shape or form, to support private sector manufacturing, bio-science or other technology devel- opment? What if we had used it to create a thoroughly integrated county-wide building and engineering permit system incorporating all of the towns, which could funda- mentally transform our disjointed, broken bureaucracy into one which is flexible, transparent and responsive?
    Imagine the jobs that could have been created. Imagine the economic development. Imagine government with enough money to purchase additional open space, provide adequately for public health and public safety, effectively maintain the infrastructure and provide all the necessary services.
    Has this spending, which was approved by the voters, been worthwhile? Certainly. Have other opportunities been squandered? Maybe. But with some out-of-the-box thinking and a little bit of courage, maybe Suffolk County can lead the way in environmental protection and economic development at the same time.


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