By Jenn LaVardera, MS RD
Memorial Day weekend marked the official start of summer—and crowds—on the east end of Long Island. While most flock to the area for the pristine beaches, high-end shopping and lavish real estate, the Hamptons and North Fork are also home to some of the best farmland in New York State.
Suffolk County, which comprises central and eastern Long Island, offers fertile soil, moderate weather, ample sunshine and fresh clean water. With the lucrative New York City market a mere two-hour drive away, Suffolk is the leading agricultural county in New York in terms of market value. The region is New York’s largest producer of cauliflower, cantaloupes and pumpkins while ranking second or third in lettuce, peppers, herbs, tomatoes, grapes, peaches and broccoli.
According to the most recent 2012 Census of Agriculture, Suffolk County boasts 604 farms covering 35,975 acres with a total of $239.8 million in annual agricultural sales. Farming on Long Island is mainly a family business: The average farm is 60 acres with an average $397,049 in sales.
Certified organic farming in Suffolk County is small, but growing. Since 2014, the number of organic producers in Suffolk County certified by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) has increased by 35%. Seventy percent of NOFA-NY certified producers in Suffolk are certified for crops including fruits, vegetables, herbs, hops, flowers, trees, grains and beans, or livestock; about 20 farms are growing organic fruits and vegetables. The remaining 3o percent are certified handlers of products such as coffee, fermented foods, dietary supplements, snacks and wine.
As noted by the Long Island Farm Bureau, many farms operate with organic growing practices but have not yet chosen to certify. Open Minded Organics (OMO) in Bridgehampton is a certified producer of organic mushrooms. However, they have chosen not to take the steps to certify their vegetables fields.
“It is a large task to certify and if I were to do it, I would take pride in my team’s accomplishment and feel more protective of how the word ‘organic’ is used,” explains OMO owner and operator David Falkowski. “Locally, there are certain producers and retailers I feel use the term ‘organic’ to mean what they want it to mean. If I became fully certified with all the vegetables on the farm, I would be more outspoken about the word being manipulated. It could be in our future, but it is frustrating to see people use the word as their own interpretation and opinion, rather than the follow the facts.”
Education is paramount in the transition to organic. There are several organizations in the area established to educate on agriculture and assist in the preservation of farmland, another top concern given Long Island’s vast population and competitive demand for land.
The Suffolk County Farmland Program was established in 1974 to ensure that farmland will always be used for agricultural production, saving over 10,000 acres across the county. The organization’s 2015 plan details the importance of increasing the number of organic operations in the area, reasoning that the educated local consumer base is willing to pay a premium for organically grown food.
The Peconic Land Trust, a private organization founded in 1983, also works to help protect farms, natural lands and agricultural heritage for the community. Their Apprentice Program, founded in 1989, teaches aspiring farmers about sustainable and organic farming practices so that agriculture in the area can continue for generations to come.
Since 1917, Cornell Cooperative Extension Agricultural program has helped local farmers face challenges including climate, costs, and environmental responsibility. They also offer an Agricultural Stewardship Program which aims to protect water quality, address environmental concerns, and preserving the business of farming on Long Island.
In a relatively small community, peer education plays a valuable role too.
“We are completely self-taught, first generation farmers” says Maggie Wood, who operates Golden Earthworm Organic Farm with husband Matthew Kurek. They were the very first Certified Organic Farm on Long Island's North Fork. “We did attend NOFA conferences at the start of our work, but have since relied heavily on our own research. The Rodale Institute has been helpful to us, as well as publications such as Acres. Over the years we have become a source of information and guidance to new organic farmers looking to start farming or transition their farm to organic. This type of peer education is very effective.”