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Farmers bond over land, search for water

Farmers Eddie Armstrong, right, and Beagan Gooth at

Farmers Eddie Armstrong, right, and Beagan Gooth at Armstrong Farm in Lattingtown. (May 14, 2012) Credit: Barry Sloan

On Armstrong Farm in Lattingtown, 500 chickens roam freely, and their eggs can be purchased using an honor system.

"You just take your eggs, leave your money and take your change," said Eddie Armstrong, 77, pointing inside a refrigerator at a box of cash.

Armstrong practices a similar hands-off philosophy with the four acres -- half of his property -- that he began allowing fellow farmer Beagan Gooth to till earlier this year.

"I treat Beagan just like he owns the land," Armstrong said. "He does what he wants."

Gooth, 31, a sixth-generation farmer who lives on Youngs Farm in Old Brookville, is growing tomatoes, squash and other crops downhill of Armstrong's chickens. He pays nothing to use the land and owns the crops he grows. Gooth must, however, pay for water for his plants.

The search for a water source to sustain a vegetable farm has bonded the two men, who are among the last farmers in a region that has grown increasingly suburban.

Armstrong went first to the Locust Valley Water District.

"They wouldn't let us put a meter on the fire hydrant," he said last week. "They thought I might break the hydrant and said there's nothing on their books for agricultural use. Of course, there's nothing on their books; I'm the only farm in the district."

Water district superintendent Charles Savinetti on Wednesday said he hasn't denied Armstrong's request for water. The farmer can install a water service -- an endeavor that could cost as much as $20,000 -- or add a spigot to his water meter on his house, he said.

"Fire hydrants are for emergencies," he said.

Youngs Farm and Rottkamp Brothers Farm, also in Old Brookville, use Jericho Water District's fire hydrants, but that permission was grandfathered in, Savinetti said.

Armstrong said he took his concerns next to Lattingtown village, where building inspector Matt Moed "came to my rescue," advising him to look into digging a well, which Armstrong plans to do next fall. It will cost him thousands, he estimated, but Gooth will have the water he needs. "Farmers help each other," Armstrong said. "All my life it's been like that."

Armstrong said he runs Nassau County's last chicken farm, founded as a dairy farm in 1939. Gooth's share had been unused since cows grazed there four decades ago.

Gooth said he has only one acre of his own to till on his family's property, the 15-acre Youngs Farm, so Armstrong's offer was "more than I could ask for."

Gooth suffered a stroke at birth and has limited use of his right arm. "I do more work than people do in a lifetime," he said. "I don't want to use my disability as an excuse."

Gooth, who studied agronomy at SUNY Cobleskill, said, "I like working with the earth. It's the heritage I have."

In their months working the same farm, Armstrong has learned about vegetables and helped Gooth plow the land. Gooth is learning about chickens and helps Armstrong chase away foxes.

Both men work every day.

"That's what farming is," Armstrong said. "It's in your blood."

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