A tractor tills soil on a farm along Edwards Avenue...

A tractor tills soil on a farm along Edwards Avenue in Riverhead Wednesday, after county officials announced a boost in the budget to preserve farmland. Credit: Tom Lambui

Suffolk County increased its budget to preserve farmland to $15 million a year in a bid to stave off private development of precious agricultural lands while giving dwindling farmers a boost to keep their operations vital.

At a gathering at Garden of Eve Farm in Riverhead Wednesday, Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine signed bills paving the way for the funds, which increase the budget to preserve farmland from a prior $10 million a year. Romaine said he would push for even more funding if farmers seeking to preserve property approach the county.

“We are going to do all we can to make sure farming stays a vital industry” in Suffolk, said Romaine, surrounded by farmers, farming advocates and local lawmakers.

Currently around 6% of Suffolk County is farmland, and Romaine said, “It’s our goal to make sure that continues.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the county’s farmland preservation program, launched by former County Executive John V.N. Klein, who Romaine said “realized developers were buying up farmland and if they continued, we would not have farmland.”

The program uses money from the county capital budget to pay farmers up to millions of dollars to keep their properties as farms, even if they sell them in the future. The county purchases so-called “development rights” on the properties, which commits current and future owners to keep the properties as undeveloped farms. The county on Wednesday announced it had paid $2.4 million to buy the development rights for 33 acres in Riverhead, just up the road from Garden of Eve.

Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine speaks at Garden of Eve...

Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine speaks at Garden of Eve Farm Wednesday morning. Credit: Tom Lambui

Legis. Catherine Stark, a Republican for the Suffolk Legislature's 1st District, noted it’s not always easy to convince farmers to sell the rights.

“We have to have a willing seller,” she said. “We are now competing with developers who want to buy large swaths [of farms] that are left. It’s very important to have contiguous farm that creates a whole farming belt. Farmers support each other.”

Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, an industry group, said preservation is important not just to keep farmers going but to ensure a safe, local food supply.

“Going forward in the future we don’t know where our food is going to come from so every acre of land that we can preserve today guarantees that in the future we’ll have access to a healthy, local food supply to help feed the 3 million people in Nassau and Suffolk counties that rely on us to give food every day for them,” he said.

Riverhead Supervisor Tim Hubbard noted that while his town has preserved more acres of farmland than any other on the East End, there’s still plenty more to protect.

The money they are using to preserve farmland in Riverhead goes a long, long way, said Hubbard.

Riverhead, he noted, still has around 7,000 acres of land that “could be preserved, and we’re chipping away at it all the time.”

“The more we can preserve the more we can keep the farmers in business,” Hubbard said. “We have to do everything we can do to make that happen. No farmers, no food.”

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