Growing potatoes for wholesale was still the lifeblood of most local farmers 40 years ago, when Suffolk became the first county in the nation to use public funds to preserve its dwindling agricultural land.
Now, many of those farmers make their living from roadside stands and other "agritourism" attractions, and legislation about to go into effect reflects the new reality. The measure makes sweeping changes to Suffolk's farmland preservation program, allowing farmers who've sold their development rights to the county to expand on-site retail and processing.
"The farmland program here in Suffolk County is pioneering -- it's been around for 40 years -- but let's face it, over that time local agriculture has changed in ways that were not fully envisioned by the policymakers," said Herb Strobel, a Center Moriches hay farmer whose family sold their development rights to the county and Brookhaven Town in 2004.
The changes, approved by the county legislature late last month and signed into law last week by County Executive Steve Bellone, will affect most of the program's 237 farms.
Using proceeds from a dedicated quarter-cent sales tax, the county since 1974 has preserved 10,485 acres of farmland by paying owners a large percentage of their properties' market value in exchange for forever keeping them in agriculture.
Under the program changes, owners, for the first time, can operate retail stands year round, and expand them to 1,000 square feet from the current 500. They will be permitted to process crops from the local area, and offer attractions including hayrides and corn mazes. They also will be able to sell nonagricultural products such as souvenir T-shirts as long as they promote farming.
Proponents argue the changes will ensure that farmers who sell development rights to the county can make a living, fending off pressures from builders.
The measure also gives officials power to penalize owners who haven't farmed for two consecutive years or more, with fines of up to $5,000 a day.
"It's one of the most important parts of this change," said Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), also a farmer. "This land should be in production, not used for someone's lawn."
Tourist visits to vineyards and nurseries account for the bulk of the region's farm business. Led by its North Fork of wineries and fruit and vegetable stands, Suffolk is New York's highest ranking county for agricultural sales, with $267 million generated by 34,400 acres in 2007, the last year statewide numbers were published.
Backers of the new legislation say owners of development-protected land were falling behind counterparts who were free to open things like "U-pick" pumpkin patches and sell processed goods like pies.
"Every week we get a phone call from a farmer asking how they can afford to expand their operation or continue farming when real estate value pressures are working against them," said Melanie Cirillo, the Peconic Land Trust's director of conservation planning.
Jim Pike, a Sagaponack farmer who operates a seasonal retail stand on county protected land, backed the changes. He said crop-processing abilities could prompt some farmers to take up operations that disturb neighbors, but that the changes will help the farming industry if they are monitored closely.
"It's nice to have the option," Pike said of expanding retail.
Environmentalists mostly backed the changes, but questioned whether officials sufficiently studied the impact they could have on groundwater.
"You have your own county studies showing the greatest contamination from fertilizers and pesticides is coming, in part, from the agriculture community," said Richard Amper, director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. "Why shouldn't we be looking how to solve that problem, in addition to how to advance farming?"
But officials said environmentalists had many chances for input, and that the county continues making open space purchases, also with quarter-cent sales tax revenue, to protect its groundwater supplies.
"We did do extensive outreach for the past two years," said Sarah Lansdale, Suffolk's planning director. "These changes are needed in order to entice the next generation of farmers to continue farming."