Livestock farming has revival on East End

Tom Hart at his farm in Orient. Despite Tom Hart at his farm in Orient. Despite a resurgence in livestock farming, the new farms face even steeper odds than most new businesses because of the high cost of doing business on the East End and the lack of supportive infrastructure for livestock, experts said. (July 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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Tom Hart bounces along a dirt path in Orient in his red pickup truck. He slows the truck, leans out the window and yells, "Hey girls!"

He isn't hollering at women. He's greeting his pigs.

Hart, 27, who started leasing 10 acres of farmland in the spring, is part of a surprising, and precarious, revival of livestock farming on Long Island's East End that is being driven by the growing interest in organic, locally grown foods.

Although the farming economy, clustered on the East End, is dominated by vegetables and vineyards, 20 of the 585 farms were focused on livestock in 2010, the most in 30 years, according to the most recent survey by the Riverhead office of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. Seven of those livestock farms have been started in the past five years.

There has been "a resurgence" of livestock farms here, said Dale Moyer, associate executive director at the extension office. "People have gotten interested in raising chickens, hog production, beef cattle production."

The new farms face even steeper odds than most new businesses because of the high cost of doing business on the East End and the lack of supportive infrastructure for livestock, experts said.

The East End is one of the priciest farming regions in New York, as land prices are set more by demand for vacation homes than the economics of producing food. An acre of farmland on the North Fork sells for $20,000 to $30,000, according to the extension office. A 2011 USDA Land Values Survey found the average cost of farmland in the state is $4,650 an acre. Upstate and in Pennsylvania, it can cost as little as $1,000 an acre, the extension office said.

 

Leased land helpsBut Hart was able to launch his farm without purchasing land; instead, he leases his 10 acres from the Peconic Land Trust. To promote farming on the East End, the trust leases a limited amount of protected farmland to start-up farmers at rents of $100 to $300 per acre per year. However, there are restrictions on building permanent structures on the land, such as houses or water wells for animals.

Organic chicken farmers Chris and Holly Browder of Browder's Birds in Southold lease five acres and a barn from the land trust for about $150 an acre per year, but say that eventually their goal will be to buy their own land.

"It's difficult, because you don't really know where you're going to be in a couple years and it's hard to put in a lot of infrastructure," Holly Browder, 35, said. "It's expensive to put up fencing for a farm you might not be on next year."

Fencing can add $20,000 to $30,000 to a farmers' start-up costs. Buying animals and their feed and care supplies can cost up to $10,000. The Cooperative Extension estimates the average Long Island livestock farmer takes three to 10 years to turn a profit.

In addition to the start-up costs, one of the largest barriers to the growth of livestock farming on the Island is the lack of a supportive infrastructure. The closest USDA-certified slaughterhouse is in Jamaica, Queens; it costs money and time to get the animals there. USDA rules require that pigs and cows be slaughtered at a certified facility. Chickens can be slaughtered in limited quantities on private farms.

East End livestock farmers, while optimistic, admit they are charting new territory: "There is no business model," Chris Browder said. "Everyone that is in this now is experimenting with livestock, and they're all wondering the same thing: Can we make money?"

Like any business with higher costs than its competitors, the farms must rely on marketing and specialty products to make a living, said Lucille Wesnofske, director of Farmingdale State College's Small Business Development Center. East End farms must "make up for the cost disadvantage by finding markets that will allow them to charge more for their products." They are capitalizing on the organic and local food trends "to justify why people will pay more for their product."

 

'There's a market for this'

Sometimes idealism attracts newcomers to farming.

The Browders began raising chickens in 2009. Chris Browder, 50, got the idea in 2004 when he read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" -- a book by Michael Pollan that questions society's relationship to food and food production -- after quitting his 20-year career as a banker at Bank of America.

The Browders sell their chickens locally for about $6.50 a pound, triple the grocery store price of conventional chicken.

"There's people experimenting with very high-cost, high quality meat . . . People are seeing there's a market out there for this," Browder said.

Not all those raising livestock are newcomers to agriculture. Some established North Fork businesses have responded to the rise in demand from restaurants and Long Islanders for organic, local meat.

McCall Wines in Cutchogue has been in business for 14 years. Three years ago, owner Russ McCall decided to also raise beef cattle, to make use of extra space on the 100-acre farm. "The idea of grass-fed beef has become common knowledge, and that's created the movement to know what you're eating," he said.

The North Fork Table and Inn, a restaurant in Southold, has been buying eggs from the Browders and meat from McCall for the past two years. Last month, it bought 14 of McCall's steers and has used the meat for steaks and sandwiches.

"It almost has a grassy and herbaceous flavor . . . it's extremely succulent," said chef de cuisine Stephan Bogardus. "We've had people come to the restaurant just to get McCall's beef."

Like McCall, Hart didn't set out to be a farmer. He graduated as a psychology major from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2009 and moved back home with his parents in Southold. His mother had a community garden plot owned by the Peconic Land Trust, and Hart volunteered there, where he met Browder, who was just starting his chicken farm.

Hart apprenticed on Browder's farm for a year and then decided to try his hand at farming on his own.

"The hardest thing," he says, "is not having any income coming in . . . There's a lot of up-front cost, and it's tough to put all that money out."

In addition to his three sows (all pregnant), Hart has 350 chickens. He estimates he spent about $20,000 on fencing and animal housing, plus another several hundred dollars for the animals. It costs about $200 a week to feed them.

Hart started his farm on Long Island because it is close to his family. But like all businesses here, he has to weigh the high costs on the Island against the possibilities if he relocated.

"The reality is I might not be able to own land and stay here," he said. "I don't want to move, but it might get to that point."

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