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.”