A decline in farms on Long Island
Written by Kiara Thomas
New York has seen a six percent decrease in farms across the state according to census data released by The U.S. Department of Agriculture 2017 on April 11. Developments, the increase cost of real estate and a decrease in food production contribute to the problems farmers are facing.
Suffolk and Nassau Counties both saw a decline in the number of farms and farmland. In 2012, there were 604 farms in Suffolk County and 55 in Nassau County. By 2017, there were 506 and 32 respectfully.
New York ranks third for the sale of milk and ranks first in the production of yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream in the country. In 2017, farmers contributed close to $2.4 billion to New York’s gross domestic product.
“It just gets harder and harder to purchase land to farm. Every year it goes up,” Lucy Senesac, farm manager at Sang Lee Farms, said. “[Land] costs millions of dollars. You’re going to have to sell a lot of vegetables to make it back.”
Long Island farms are competing with farmers around the world. The minimum wage for local farmers is $12, compared to other countries and states surrounding New York, which is $7.25. Food distributors are getting cheaper products from outside New York and Long Island farms are losing business. Farmers also have to pay property tax and local business taxes, and the cost of land is increasing.
The lack of access to land is contributing to the rising costs. Developers are using land for major projects and in return, the amount of available land is decreasing. The high prices prevent farms from expanding.
“One hundred years ago, we had active farms in Queens, Nassau, and west of Suffolk,” Executive Director of Long Island Farm Bureau Robert Carpenter said. “Land was taken by developers. We are reaching a point where we are not creating more land for new farms.”
Developments are easy to put on farmland because it is already cleared and leveled. Houses can be built in four months, Melanie Cirillo, the director of conservation planning at Peconic Land Trust, said.
Keber’s Farm in Huntington was abandoned by the owners who retired and who children didn’t want to run it. The farm, built in the 1940s was destined to be bought by developers who wanted to build condominiums. However, Nick Voulgaris bought the land in 2013 to save it from construction. The business is growing 20 percent each year and Voulgaris plans on building a farming educational school next year.
“I drove by it for years and was finally able to buy it and preserve it,” Voulgaris said. “It’s a community destination and has the essence of being a true farm.”
Farmers are also combating climate-related challenges. The seasons for growing vegetation are getting longer. Some farmers are seeing their food change along with the climate.
“Quite a bit has changed on the planet in 47 years,” Bob Benner, co-owner of Benner’s Farm, said. “Strawberries ripen earlier than they had and their leaves are different than they were. The garden’s land had a different first frost. It was once October [or] Oct. 15 and now it’s November.”
A change in the length of certain vegetation seasons have also been seen at HeartBeets Farm. In April 2017, volunteers wore winter jackets. This year, they wore sweatshirts.
The weather has been cold longer and suddenly gets hotter, said Jennifer Ross, co-owner of HeartBeets Farm.
“[The duration of growth for] greens in the spring are [shorter compared to] past seasons,” Ross said. “Our fall season go longer now – really Thanksgiving, we have vegetables. And in the past it usually stopped in October, but now we have a lot of greens and a lot of winter squash through November even through December.”
Along with the increase in climate, there is a growing lack of interest by the new generation to take over farming. People are retiring and the next generation isn’t taking over because farming doesn’t pay much.
“According to the 2017 census, 40 percent of our producers in New York State are over the age of 65—that’s the second highest share in the nation,” said Erica Goodman, the New York State deputy director of American Farmland Trust, said. The lack of a transition plan makes the farm land vulnerable.
“[Millennials] saw how hard their family was working [and barely making any money.] Now, more people are college educated and they don’t want to continue [farming] unless the generation continues to make farming new,” said Senesac.
Sang Lee Farms is doing well, said Senesac. They sell their products directly to their customers and cut out the middleman to make more of a profit. Sang Lee Farms is also staying on trend by growing organic, introducing new vegetation and making meals, such as salads, with the food grown. In 2017, 1,340 New York farms were certified as organic by the USDA National Organic Program in 2017 compared to 824 in 2012.
“Farms are looking to diversify their options. Some are bottling their own milk and producing their own cheese,” Steve Ammerman, New York Farm Bureau Public Affairs Manager, said.
Some farms, including HeartBeets Farm have volunteers who come throughout the week. Volunteers help manage the land and plant fruits and vegetables.
“What’s nice about it is that the dirt is a blank piece of paper,” Elaine Gaveglia, a volunteer at HeartBeets, said. “You put some plants in and in about two weeks you’ll see something growing rather than when I was sitting at a desk pushing papers around not knowing what you do really matters.”