Survey: Suffolk County farmers bullish on the future

Farmer John L. Halsey drives a tractor as

Farmer John L. Halsey drives a tractor as he gives Southampton Town officials a tour of the Halsey Farm. (Aug. 19, 2009) (Credit: Gordon M. Grant)

Suffolk farmers appear bullish on the future, saying by a two-to-one margin that they plan to expand their operations in the next few years, according to a county survey released Wednesday.

About three-quarters of the farmers said they have recovered from the economic downturn.

The survey results are "a pretty good indicator that the industry has rebounded," said August Ruckdeschel, Suffolk farm administrator, who did the survey. "A lot of them are back on a solid footing." He said Suffolk farmers generate sales of $7,249 per acre compared to the statewide average of $616.

However, local farmers also said they face large challenges, including high production and fuel costs, and limited availability of labor. Some 59 percent say they are "very concerned" about the future profitability of farming while 42 percent worry about future access to affordable land.

Details of the survey -- in which 143 farmers from Suffolk's 585 farms responded -- were disclosed at the county planning commission in Hauppauge. It is a first step toward a comprehensive study, due in August, to identify strategies to help the farm industry prosper in the face of challenges. Suffolk now leads the state in crop cash value, estimated at $273 million a year.

The study, the first county agricultural review since 1996, comes in the wake of landmark efforts since the 1970s that have preserved more than 10,000 acres of farmland. Eastern Suffolk towns have protected another 10,000 acres through purchase of development rights and zoning measures. From 1987 to 1996, farmland dropped from 41,828 to 35,353 acres. Since then, efforts have staved off most new losses -- 34,404 acres remain in farm use.

Joseph Gergela, Long Island Farm Bureau executive director, said the survey "tells us what people in the field are really thinking" on issues facing them. "We're farming in suburbia, holding our own . . . as long as we can deal with issues thrown at us."

The brightest finding in the survey is that 24 percent of farmers said they expect to expand operation in the next year, while only 8 percent expect to shrink. Over the next five years, 38 percent expect to grow while only 16 percent expect to downsize.

The survey also found that 41 percent of those surveyed said that sales have grown in the last five years, and 33 percent say sales are flat, while only 26 percent reported lower sales.

The survey also found many farmers have embraced new ways to generate revenues. It said 54 percent were involved in some form of agritourism, ranging from site tours and tasting rooms to tractor rides and mazes.

However, 83 percent of farmers worried about high production costs, while 70 percent worried about the availability of labor. Sixty-one percent also cited property taxes and 58 percent raised extreme weather issues and climate change as major concerns.

Commission member Michael Kelley asked planners if farmers were surveyed about the potential of farming marijuana in light of Albany talk of permitting pot for medical uses. Officials said they did not because the survey was launched last January. "How about going forward?" he said. "It's a hot-button issue."

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