State officials have launched a $1 million grant program to help Long Island farmers pay for tractors, greenhouses and other capital costs -- part of an effort to help keep agriculture alive in the region despite some of the highest land and production costs in the country.
The Empire State Development grants will reimburse eligible farmers in Suffolk and Nassau counties for up to 20 percent of the cost of equipment or infrastructure, up to $25,000.
Eligible farmers include those just getting into the business, those transitioning to a new commodity or method of production, and those upgrading to comply with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.
Long Island officials and farming advocates announced the opening of the application process Friday at a news conference at the Cornell University Long Island Horticultural Research & Extension Center in Riverhead.
"Agriculture is facing so many challenges, whether it's the price of land, access to land, the labor issues, the regulatory issues that farmers are confronted with, the high cost of doing business on Long Island," said John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, a nonprofit that preserves Long Island farmland.
Suffolk officials and farming advocates worked for a year to develop the program after a survey revealed that the average age of a farmer in the county is 55, said David Calone, chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age for farmers nationally was 58 in 2012, the last year records are available.
"We knew that we needed to strengthen our farm economy for the future and we need to make sure we get that next generation of farmers into the field," Calone said.
Commission members also heard about the struggles of young farmers last year at a roundtable discussion for growers in East Hampton, he said.
Alex Balsam, who started his Amagansett vegetable farm 13 years ago when he was 22, said Friday that "access to capital is a huge issue" for a young farmer on Long Island. "You just scrounge up what you can," he said.
Officials said the grants are expected to help 50 to 100 farmers over three years.
Applications will be available on the Peconic Land Trust website and through several farming organizations and Suffolk offices. They will be accepted on a rolling basis and reviewed by a committee of farming advocates, and then by Empire State Development officials.