Agriculture has been the backbone of Suffolk County’s identity for centuries and continues to be a foundation of the region’s economy. Suffolk County ranks first in New York in annual farm sales with more than $300 million in farm products sold in 2010.
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. Such demand has made farmland values in Suffolk County among the highest in the nation. When high farmland values are combined with significant costs of labor, fuel and other expenses, sustaining economically viable farms is a critical issue for the future of farming in the region.
Suffolk County has a legacy of bold action when it comes to safeguarding a place for agriculture. In the 1970s, Suffolk County’s government was the first in America to permanently protect farmland from development. Without this visionary action, Long Island would have lost nearly all of its farms.
Today, Long Island faces new challenges, such as the affordability of farmland that has been permanently protected as well as addressing water quality problems while sustaining farm viability.
Commitment to Local Food and Local Water
Suffolk County, an 86-mile-long stretch of central and eastern Long Island, is surrounded on three sides by water and 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.
American Farmland Trust, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, and AgFlex have joined forces to support continued environmental stewardship by farmers in Suffolk County. Started in 2012 with 10 farmers growing sweet corn, these efforts aim to increase farmers’ use of a new type of fertilizer that enables an average of 20 percent reductions in nitrogen applications while maintaining healthy crop harvests. The new Controlled-Release Nitrogen Fertilizer 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.
As part of the project, Cornell Cooperative Extension works with farmers in the following areas:
- Farm equipment is calibrated prior to planting to ensure that fertilizers are being applied at the correct rate.
- Crops being produced with Controlled Release Nitrogen Fertilizer are monitored annually to ensure healthy crop development.
- Samples are taken from corn and potato crops produced with traditional fertilizer and Controlled Release Nitrogen Fertilizer to determine if both crops are receiving adequate nitrogen.
- Crop yields and quality are compared between plants produced with traditional fertilizer and Controlled Release Nitrogen Fertilizer.
Participating farmers are also 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.
The BMP Challenge pays farmers cash if yield and income are reduced due to the adoption of a new conservation practice, such as use of Controlled Release Nitrogen Fertilizer. Unique performance guarantees allow farmers to try conservation practices on their own land, observe performance over time in side-by-side comparisons, and evaluate economic impact without risk to income due to yield loss.
In Suffolk County, Controlled Release Nitrogen Fertilizer is used on a check strip in each enrolled field. Traditional fertilizer practices are used on the balance of the field. Crop yields are assessed at harvest, and any farmer experiencing lower yields with the Controlled Release Nitrogen Fertilizer will be reimbursed the difference.
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.
This project to aid farmers in protecting water quality in Suffolk County has been made possible by financial support from:
August 19, 2013 – edible East End: Farmers Improve Water Quality in Suffolk County
August, 1, 2013 – Riverhead News Review: Fertilizing, not contaminating
July 28, 2013 – Newsday: Haight: Farmers eye clean water and land prices
July 24, 2013 – PRESS RELEASE: Growing Number of Long Island Farmers Take Steps to Reduce Nitrogen Use and Protect Water Quality
July 25, 2013 – NorthFork Patch: Farmers Band Together To Cut Back on Nitrogen Fertilizers