Long Island farmers and vineyard owners had their chance Friday to help shape the next Farm Bill, which could affect the East End agriculture industry.
In a small barn on Deer Run Farms in Brookhaven, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) took questions and suggestions from members of the region's farming and agriculture sector concerning industry issues.
As the first New York senator to serve on the Senate Agricultural Committee in more than 40 years, Gillibrand has been touring the state soliciting opinions from farmers as Congress has started work on the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill.
Friday's discussion focused on critical regional topics such as "buy local" programs, specialty crop grants and farm protection programs.
According to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, the value of agricultural products from Suffolk County is $306 million -- the highest in the state. There are about 585 farms in Suffolk and nearly 60 in Nassau County.
"Long Island is the forefront of the specialty crop market for New York State," Gillibrand said. "We have a lot of opportunities in Long Island to continue to be a very important part of not just New York's economy, but the American economy."
But the day's session began with a different issue facing farmers: immigrant workers. Many said they needed more laborers and that current immigration policies do not allow foreign workers to stay long enough. Gillibrand said that even if extensive immigration reform does not come through, she would push very hard for AgJOBs -- a bill that would streamline the visa process for foreign agricultural workers.
Several farmers and vineyard owners were concerned about fund cuts already made to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which promotes and supports agriculture-related research and education.
Vito Minei, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, stressed the importance of applying scientific research to farming practices, adding that it has already contributed to the well-being of Long Island farms.
"It's really instrumental in getting the facts out to the people so they understand the relationship of environmental protection, profitability on farms and social responsibility," he said.
Gillibrand also discussed efforts in increasing accessibility to locally grown products, such as allowing farmer's market merchants to take payment in food stamps and connecting local farms to school cafeterias.
Larry Perrine, the chief executive of Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, said after the event that he was pleased with Gillibrand's knowledge of the Long Island farm industry.
"It was important to hear her address the recognition that . . . specialty crops are the key to the economy of New York," he said.