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In October 2008, a busload of farmland advocates—led by American Farmland Trust—traveled to Suffolk County on the east end of Long Island to learn first-hand about a region that has more than 30 years of successful experience in protecting farmland.
Suffolk County is the number-one agricultural county in New York, producing $168 million a year in farm products—ranging from potatoes to horticultural products to wine grapes grown on some of the best soil in the country. "Suffolk County farms and farmers are our national treasures," said Joe Gergela of Long Island Farm Bureau, a speaker on the bus tour.
"Long Island's farm heritage goes back over three centuries," said AFT's New York Director David Haight, who led the bus tour along with AFT New York Field Representative Liz Brock. "But it's truly 'farming on the urban edge.' Long Island farmland is among the most threatened in the nation. The area is a leading indicator of where the rest of suburbia is going."
The bus tour gave community members from the Hudson Valley—including land trust staff, local town board members and other farmland protection advocates—an in-depth look at how Long Island is permanently protecting farmland and planning a future for agriculture.
Long Island farmers and local officials took action long before other regions of the country to protect their threatened farmland. In the early 1970s, an East End farmer, John Talmage, and John Klein, a Suffolk County executive, first came up with the idea of paying farmers to sell their development rights—a concept that is now used all over the country as a tool to help farmers and communities save the land for agriculture.
Since then, Suffolk County's Community Preservation Fund (generated by a two percent tax on real estate transactions) has raised more than $500 million in the last 10 years to fund the preservation of farmland and open space. "The Community Preservation Fund provided a source of income to do the remarkable things that we have done," said speaker Phil Cardinale, supervisor of the town of Riverhead, which has preserved 1,800 acres of farmland.
In a place where farmland values can range from $100,000 to $115,000 per acre, protecting all that land hasn't come cheap. "Suffolk County has spent more than a billion dollars on farmland and open space protection—more than anyplace in the United States," Gergela said. "We take it really seriously and we're really proud of that. We're not done yet; we have more to do."
"We're dealing with this in the fast lane—in a place with high land values and high taxes. We have to think outside the box to protect what we love out here," explained John Halsey, director of the Peconic Land Trust, which has protected 9,000 acres on Long Island. "We have to educate people that farming is more than open space—it's an economy, it's a business, it's a way of life. There is no silver bullet [to protecting land]. It's a matter of having as many tools as you can to fit the circumstances of the landowners."
"From our bus tour of Long Island, I think participants came away with several lessons," said David Haight. "For one, we saw how much Long Island has accomplished because they had the foresight to start early in protecting their land. Now is the time for action, even in places where the development pressure isn't so great.
"And number two, people have to see a future for farming. There are a lot of issues facing farming that towns and counties can't address. But there are issues that towns can impact: towns need to make it feasible for farmers to adapt and do things differently, to facilitate economic opportunities for farmers. One of the main challenges for rural towns is generating money locally to protect farmland. But you have to start somewhere, build momentum, and grow your program from there."
To Learn More:
AFT's Guide to Local Planning for Agriculture in New York [PDF]
Town of Riverhead, New York
Long Island Farm Bureau
Suffolk County, New York
Peconic Land Trust
Town of Southampton, New York
Town of Southold, New York
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