The Halsey family's farm in Suffolk County. The Halseys have...

The Halsey family's farm in Suffolk County. The Halseys have farmed the South Fork of Long Island since the 1640s. Credit: Rory McNish/Cornell Cooperative Extension-Suffolk County

The harvest of sweet corn, tomatoes and other fresh produce is one of the pleasures of summer on Long Island. Suffolk County's 500-plus family farms produce nearly $300 million in fruits, vegetables, plants and other agricultural products -- more than any other county in the state.

This annual bounty might not exist if Suffolk County had not taken bold steps in the 1970s to protect its farmland from real estate development. Suffolk launched the nation's first purchase of development rights program, which pays farmers to permanently extinguish the right to develop their farmland. Nearly 120 local and state governments across the nation have followed Suffolk's pioneering efforts and allocated more than $5 billion to permanently protect more than 16,000 farms covering nearly 3 million acres.

Forty years after taking that step, Suffolk County is updating its Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan, which will act as a blueprint for growing the agricultural economy and protecting farmland. Prominent issues facing farming in Suffolk are among the most urgent in this country, and the county's response may once again be emulated across America.

Two critical issues are encouraging farmers to protect water and keeping farmland affordable for the next generation.

Clean water is important to everyone, including farmers. High levels of nitrogen in groundwater, the Long Island Sound and the Peconic Estuary pose a threat to water quality -- not just for human consumption but for wildlife and plants as well. Sources of excess nitrogen include residential septic systems, sewage treatment plants and fertilizers used on lawns, gardens and farmland.

Last year, American Farmland Trust and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County launched a partnership to address farmers' concerns that a new conservation practice to protect water quality might significantly diminish harvests and farm income. Over the past two years, our organizations have worked with virtually all the county's commercial sweet corn growers and half of the potato farmers to experiment with conservation practices, such as a new variety of fertilizer that enables farmers to reduce nitrogen use by an average of 20 percent.

Suffolk County farmers are interested in other approaches that keep water clean and generate healthy soils, too. But the cost and risk of adopting such measures must not fall solely on farm families. Together, we must find ways to help farmers protect the environment and sustain a vibrant farm economy.

A second looming issue is the affordability of Suffolk County farmland -- particularly farmland that has been permanently protected. Without affordable land, beginning farmers struggle to buy a farm. Programs that purchase development rights help keep farmland affordable by taking development potential out of the land's value.

But there are nonfarmers, many of them neighbors to the farms, who want to own protected farmland for personal recreational use or its scenic value -- and will pay top dollar for it. These buyers have driven up the price of protected farmland, sometimes paying $100,000 or more an acre, especially on Long Island's South Fork. At such prices, it's unlikely that the land will be used for commercial farming again.

Suffolk's historic public commitment to protecting farmland and agriculture has never been more important and must be matched by action to ensure that protected farms stay active in farming. The Peconic Land Trust has demonstrated that purchase-of-development-rights techniques can be adapted to ensure that protected land will be priced as farmland and actively used by farmers forever. A sustained commitment by local governments and other partners is the only way to effectively keep farmland affordable for the next generation of Long Island's farmers.

Suffolk County has a critical opportunity to address important issues such as clean water and farmland affordability. The future of farming in this region may depend on it, and others nationwide will be watching.

David Haight is the New York State director of American Farmland Trust, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting farmland, promoting sound farming practices and keeping farmers on the land.

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