Thirty-Five Farmers Join in 2013 Program
Saratoga Springs, N.Y., July 24, 2013 –A pioneering group of 35 family farmers on Long Island are conducting on-farm conservation projects this summer to reduce their use of nitrogen fertilizers on sweet corn and potato crops. Last year's first 10 participants in the program were able to cut their fertilizer use by an average of 20 percent while sustaining farm productivity.
The water-quality improvement projects are part of a program being offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County's Agricultural Stewardship Program (CCE), a nonprofit community agency that works with local farmers to improve farming practices; American Farmland Trust (AFT), the nation's leading nonprofit farmland conservation organization; and AgFlex a private company that minimizes farmers' risks when adopting conservation practices.
Water quality is a big issue in Suffolk County, an 86-mile-long stretch of central and eastern Long Island that is surrounded on three sides by water and is home to 1.49 million people. The county’s sole source of drinking water, as well as Long Island Sound and the Peconic Estuary, suffer from heightened levels of nitrogen.
Aggressive real estate development has reduced the number of acres in active farming from 100,000 during the mid-1900s to the current 34,000 acres. But farming is still important in this region, contributing close to $300 million to the state’s agriculture economy, more than any other county in the state.
"Long Island farmers are well aware of concerns about drinking water as well as Long Island Sound and the Peconic Estuary," said David Haight, New York Director of American Farmland Trust. "Our project offers practical ways for farmers to sustain crop yields while reducing nitrogen entering the water."
Of the 35 participating farmers, 16 sweet corn and potato farmers are testing a new controlled-release fertilizer, which is designed to break down over time according to the plant’s need for nutrients. Conventional fertilizers can dissolve during heavy rains and enter local water supplies.
These farmers are enrolled in the BMP Challenge, an innovative program developed by American Farmland Trust and AgFlex to eliminate financial risk as a barrier to farmers’ adoption of conservation practices. Introduced to 10 Suffolk County sweet corn growers in 2012, the program pays farmers cash if yield and income are reduced due to the adoption of the new conservation practice, such as use of controlled release nitrogen fertilizer. American Farmland Trust is seeking to triple the acreage enrolled in the BMP Challenge to 30,000 acres across 19 states to reduce farmers’ use of nitrogen nationally by 756,000 pounds.
Becky Wiseman, Agricultural Environmental Stewardship Coordinator of CCE, who works with Suffolk County farmers on the program, said it addresses one of the toughest issues local farmers have ever faced.
"Farmers in Suffolk County are specialty crop producers who have farmed this land for generations," said Wiseman. "They are as invested in water quality as anyone, because their families drink the water, too. This program provides risk protection for farmers interested in reducing their nitrogen fertilizer use, but who are concerned about possible yield losses from adopting a new practice."
"We’re excited to see the significant growth in farmer interest in these conservation practices," said Haight. "It shows that farmers are willing to step up and do more to protect drinking water as long as it isn’t going to lead to significant crop losses or dramatic increases in expenses."
The Halsey family, now in its 12th generation of farming on Long Island's South Fork, believes there are ways that local farmers can improve conservation practices.
"Everybody has to do their part as far as nitrogen is concerned. Anything you put in the soil is going to end up in the water if there is too much of it," said Jennifer Halsey.
Marty Sidor, whose family has farmed potatoes in the North Fork of Long Island since 1908, says the new controlled-release fertilizer fits well in his planting and fertilizing plan.
"It’s very user-friendly," said Sidor. "I have seen crops that store better, and I have not seen one deficiency in the field through all this time."
AFT's Haight said that Suffolk County is considered a farmland conservation leader nationally. "In the 1970s, Suffolk County was the first government in America to permanently protect farmland from development. Without this visionary action, Long Island would have lost its farms and all they contribute to the region. We hope Suffolk County will once again be a national leader by demonstrating that it's possible to work with farmers to protect water quality while keeping farms economically viable.
This project to aid farmers in protecting water quality in Suffolk County has been made possible by financial support from the Environmental Protection Agency, Long Island Community Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Rauch Foundation, Suffolk County Water Quality Protection and Restoration Program, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the William E. & Maude S. Pritchard Charitable Trust.
Editor's Note: Additional information about the Suffolk County BMP Challenge, including profiles and videos of participating farmers, can be found at http://newyork.farmland.org/suffolkcounty.
High-resolution photographs and video B-roll of farmers and farms are available on request. Additionally, interviews can be scheduled with David Haight, Becky Wiseman and participating farmers. Contact Michele Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-417-0696.