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Handful of farmers keep tradition alive in western Suffolk

Thera Farms in Brentwood is one of a handful of produce-growing farms left in western Suffolk County that are 10 acres or larger, said owner Teddy Bolkas. Farm preservationists believe that farms such as Thera, now in its third year of operation, could possibly revive produce-growing farms in suburbia on Long Island. Credit: Newsday / Shelby Knowles

A vast expanse of crops stretch across the horizon, sprinklers and tractors are running, and corn is being piled onto a vehicle, ready to be cleaned.

This isn’t rural New York. This is suburban Long Island.

Farms across Long Island are giving way to development, particularly in western Suffolk County, but a handful of farmers are working to keep the tradition alive. 

The number of farm acreage in Suffolk County dropped from nearly 50,000 in 1982 to about 30,000 in 2017, according to U.S. Census of Agriculture data. Only 3 percent of active farmland lies in western Suffolk. Farmland in Nassau County decreased from about 1,900 to 910 acres in the same period. 

Thera Farms in Brentwood is one of just a handful of produce-growing farms left in western Suffolk that are 10 acres or larger, owner Teddy Bolkas said. There are no more than 10 produce-growing farms of that size in western Suffolk, according to the Long Island Farm Bureau.

“We’re a dying breed,” Bolkas said. “A lot of farms are disappearing.”

Overall, there are 31 active farms of 10 acres or more in western Suffolk according to the most recent data, county officials say.

Bolkas for the past three years has leased 14 acres — formerly open lawn space — from the Sisters of St. Joseph under Suffolk County’s farmland preservation program. The county buys the development rights so the land can only be used for farming. Prior to that, many called to inquire using their land for low-income housing, retail, mall outlets and golf courses, said Karen Burke, coordinator of land initiatives for the ministry.

The ability to lease instead of buy allows him to run a more sizable farm, Bolkas said. Previously, he had a much smaller farm in Ronkonkoma.

“The cost of an acre of land in western Suffolk is over $200,000 an acre. To buy 10 acres, you’re looking at $2 million,” he said. “You’re never making that money back with tomatoes and radishes.”

George Muller, who has owned a 20-acre farm in Melville since 1975, said he has turned down lucrative offers to sell his property. He wasn't ready then, but will most likely sell in the future. He is 62 years old, and his children aren’t interested in farming.

“They’ll [farms] go one by one. Most likely, I’ll be the first to jump on the bandwagon,” he said. 

The cost of farming, such as taxes and hard-to-access supplies based out east, is also a challenge to stay in business, Muller said. He paid about $600 a year in school and property taxes on his 20 acres in his early days of farming, he said. Today, he pays nearly $41,000.

“It’s almost impossible, to put it that way,” he said about keeping up with taxes.

The Peconic Land Trust, an organization that aims to preserve farmland in Long Island, has some grants to help alleviate those costs, but fewer farms in suburbia means less funding set aside.

“If the town or county doesn’t have the money, it’s harder to preserve the land,” said Melanie Cirillo, the trust’s director of conservation planning.  "In towns like Islip, they just don’t think about farmland preservation. Whereas out in Southampton, it’s the priority.”

Some farmers have turned to other revenue streams, such as greenhouses, nurseries or vineyard operations. According to county data, greenhouse space has seen a rise from occupying about 4.5 million square feet in 1974 to 12 million square feet in 2012.

Muller himself has half his acres set aside for growing flowers, which makes more money than the other half from which he grows produce.

Despite all the challenges, Thera Farms has been profitable selling produce. The farmstand next to his farm has seen a 38 percent sales growth since last year, Bolkas said.

The farm plays into his mission for helping underserved communities.

“I don’t want to grow food and sell at Manhattan,” he said. “I want to feed the neighbors. I’m able to service a neighborhood where no one else wanted to come to.”

According to U.S. Census of Agriculture data, direct food sales at farm stands and farmers markets has increased 209 percent to $27.7 million in the past five years.

“I’d rather buy here than the supermarket because this is the real organic thing,” said Gary Laurent, 49, of Brentwood, who was shopping at Thera Farms on a recent Monday. “We don’t have any other in Brentwood. You have to go far east to get real, healthy food.”

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