Interest in farming increases on Long Island despite its difficulties

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By Rebekah Sherry and Jessica Chin

The National Young Farmers coalition plans to open a chapter on Long Island next spring after their membership increased exponentially from 137 members in 2011 to 1600 today, an almost 85 percent increase.

The National Young Farmers Coalition, established in 2010 is an organization devoted to helping people who are new to farming find their feet in the industry.

“I had a stable office job with benefits,” Lily Dougherty-Johnson,  a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition,  said. “I thought this is not enough for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be inside all day at a computer and feel like I’m not doing something important and farming feels important.”

Dougherty-Johnson, 36, left her job as a librarian in 2013 to begin an apprenticeship on a Massachusetts farm. Today, she leases an acre of farmland in Southhold.

While there are people like Dougherty-Johnson who are excited to become farmers; Current Long Island farmers feel discouraged about the future of their profession.

“Farming on Long Island used to be the best business you could be in because everyone loved fresh fruits and vegetables,”  Christine Davis, former manager of Davis Peach Farm, said. “Then it kind of died.”

Although 20,000 acres of farmland are enrolled for protection, some farmers are selling or renting out their preserved farmland as they are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a farm in the county.

The iconic Davis Peach Farm, which had been in business for 230 years, finally closed this September 24 after its 83-year-old owner David Davis, sold the farm to another farmer.

According to data collected by the Peconic Land Trust the average age of farmers in Suffolk county has steadily increased from 50 years-old in 1959 to 57 years-old in 2012.

“My family has been farming here since the Queen of England gave the land away in the 1600s,” Henry Silverman, owner of Evan’s Farm, said.

Today the original 400 acres of his family land have been reduced to six. And Silverman is planning to sell those remnants of his legacy.

High operational costs and taxes are some of the reasons, farmers like Silverman are selling.

“An acre of land on Long Island costs about $50,000 an acre, whereas an acre of land upstate costs as little as $2,000,” Scott Chasky, director of Quail Hill Farm, said.

Manager of Schmitt farms, Matt Schmitt laments the change of prices in the industry.

“It used to be you could sell 18 heads of Romaine Lettuce for $10, “ Schmitt said. “Now you sell 25 heads for the same price.”

This is a result of globalization, meaning farmers need to compete in a global market. Davis said she noticed a decline in the business during the early 1990s, which is around the same time the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed, making it easier for wholesalers to buy from international sellers at cheaper prices.

“On the wholesale level, you have to compete with the whole world when you sell your produce,” Edward Harbes, retired owner of Harbes Family Farm, said.

As of 2013, 585 farms remained in Suffolk County.  Nearly all of those farms switched from a pure wholesale to a combination of a wholesale-retail business model in order to remain profitable.

“We could not continue farming wholesale,” Tom Wickham, owner of Wickham farms, said. “The cost of production was too high, so we needed to change to a different model.”

Although current farmers feel discouraged about the future of the profession, there are a growing number of people willing to take on the challenge.

Quail Hill Farm, a project of the Peconic Trust, provides training and mentorship for people interested in farming. Over the last 5 years they said they have seen over a 50 percent increase in enrollment of new farmers.