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Suffolk Closeup: County’s agricultural history deserves respect

Farming on Long Island deserves to be appreciated.

Among public officials from Long Island who very much do appreciate agriculture here, and throughout the state, is New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. Last year, the former state assemblyman from Great Neck Plaza issued a laudatory report on agriculture. 

Mr. DiNapoli noted in the report that Suffolk County remains a top agricultural county in the state. It’s rated fourth in the state, with $225.6 million in annual total sales in 2017. It was only led by the upstate counties of Wyoming with $307.5 million; Cayuga with $287.5 million; and Genesee with $234.9 million.

His report lists 560 farms in Suffolk County out of 35,537 in New York and state farm produce generating $5.7 billion in revenue in 2017.

“Agriculture is an essential part of New York’s economy,” DiNapoli said in comments accompanying the report, which is available online. It’s titled “A Profile in Agriculture in New York State” and is at osc.state.ny.us/reports/economic/agriculture-report-2019.pdf.

The report declares: “While the total number of farms and acreage declined from 2007 to 2017, their overall economic impact increased as net farm income grew by more than 20 percent. In addition, the number of certified organic farms increased by over 60 percent from 2012 to 2017.  New York ranks as a national leader for a variety of agricultural commodities … New York is the [nation’s] third largest producer of wine … The state has created a variety of policy initiatives to address challenges facing New York farmers, including efforts to limit state and local taxes on agricultural land, farmland protection initiatives, capital investment funds for new farmers, and financial incentives for schools that use locally sourced food.”

Suffolk was, for many years, the top agricultural county in New York State in value of its annual produce. But being number four is still very good.

And considering the development pressures that have existed on Long Island, the continuation of a thriving agricultural industry is especially notable. It is a testament to the actions of people.

First of all, there are the hardworking farmers of Long Island, the men and women who are committed to doing the tough, essential work. 

Then there’s the county’s Farmland Preservation Program, launched by Suffolk County Executive John V. N. Klein in 1974, a first-in-the-nation program based on the brilliant concept of saving farms through the sale of development rights. Farmers are given the monetary difference between what their land is valued in agriculture and what they could get for it if they sold it off for a housing subdivision. In return, the land remains in agriculture in perpetuity.

Then there’s been the ingenuity of those in agriculture, especially Louisa and Alex Hargrave, who started a vineyard in Cutchogue in 1973, leading to scores of vineyards and wineries, a prosperous Long Island wine industry, a world-class product, and a leap in diversifying agriculture here.

Then there’s the Community Preservation Fund, started in 1998, spearheaded by State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) and covering the East End towns. It is based on a real estate transfer tax of 2% on most transactions.

And there’s the “public appreciation” of Long Island farmers, as the director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, Rob Carpenter notes. People have been purchasing local produce from farm stands, and beginning over the last decade, a “farm-to-table” program of restaurants emphasizing the serving of local farm produce, and stores (including supermarkets) have stressed the sale of local produce.

It’s not just produce that farms generate. As the Farm Bureau’s website notes: “Today’s farming activities also help to preserve wildlife habitats and the natural aesthetic beauty of our fair island. Long Island farmland provides an important buffer against urban sprawl, protects the water supply and helps maintain the traditional rural character of the wonderful East End of Long Island.” 

As an “economic force,” agriculture employs “well over 10,000 people in the region, with a multiplier effect that generates jobs for tens of thousands more. Long Island agriculture is a billion-dollar-a-year industry and generates billions of dollars more for the Island’s largest industry, tourism, travel and hospitality … Long Island agriculture provides the scenic vistas desired by our visitors and close proximity to farm markets, where visitors and year ‘round residents enjoy the advantage of locally produced fruits, vegetables, poultry, fish, flowers, herbs, specialty products, ornamental horticultural products, and the best varieties of wine from local wineries.”