At a Stop & Shop in Long Island there’s a sign reading local under which the season offerings of produce reside. It’s the same at Whole Foods and other neighborhood markets throughout Long Island and New York State.
Head East, to where expressways give way to wide open spaces of land and farm stands dot the roads and it’s easy to see why local produce signs in major supermarkets aren’t unusual.
Suffolk County, alone, accounts for the largest amount of agricultural sales of any New York county and is home to about one-fifth of the state’s wineries.
But look deeper at the landscape and another story emerges one of disappearing farmland and a potential loss of food security.
Seven years ago researchers a Cornell University compared 42 diets each of which was roughly the same calorie intake and composed of grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products only produced in New York State but with different amounts of meat. They found that using the average high-meat, high-diary diet the state can only feed 22 percent of its population. If everyone followed a low-fat vegetarian diet, the state could feed about 32 percent of its population.
Even if everyone in New York were to wake up tomorrow and decide to be a vegetarian those numbers are still only about a 1/3 of the population and getting worse.
“80 percent of fruit, 70 percent of vegetables and 50 percent of milk in New York is produced in developing areas where land is in danger of being developed,” David Haight the state director of New York Farmland Trust said.
According to Haight, the three areas in New York that face the most development pressure are Long Island’s East End, the Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes.
“Land is our future, if we waste it we’re going to have a severe impact on future generations,” Haight said.
Count to 60. Go on, do it.
One acre of farmland is gone. Every minute America loses more than an acre of farmland, according to the America Farmland Trust, losing roughly 1.5 million acres of farmland a year to development. New York State loses about one farm every 3 1/2 days according to the New York State Office of American Farmland Trust, about 500,000 acres in the past 25 years.
“Since the 1980s we’ve paved 425,000 acres of farmland which is about 4,500 medium-sized farms the vast majority, 99.8 percent of which are family families,” Haight said.
It’s not a new issue. Development, loss of profitably, difficulty of finding reliable workers all contribute to loss of farmland. On Long Island the loss has been seen over the past five decades as farms retreated to the East End. In 1959, there were 69,776 acres of farmland in Suffolk County and another 7, 406 acres in Nassau for a total of 77,182. In 2012, the last date for which numbers are available there were 35,975 acres in Suffolk County and 2,682 acres in Nassau, a total of 38,658 acres.
“We’re at a critical mass of farmland,” Joseph Gergela III, the retiring Executive Director of the Long Island Farm Bureau said.
According to Gergela while farmland has stayed relatively steady over the past few years he expects that with the recession ebbing away, development will start picking up and Long Island will begin to lose more farmland.
This past summer, Farm Credit East released it’s latest report finding that farmland on the East End of Long was going for $10,000 to more than $2 million per acre.
“Farmers like the to say the last crop is pavement,” Haight said. “Once a farm is paved over for land between the farms and real estate it’s too expensive for farmers to afford.”
Everyone eventually feels the loss of farms. Family farms, and they’re all family farms on Long Island, are small businesses and they have a huge impact on local economies. They’re a foundation of the bigger economy locally from grocery stores, to supplies, to shipping.
Not to mention quality of life. Farms are just plain nice to look at, but more than looks they help keep the air clean and deter runoff.
“Everyone is an eater,” Haight said. While eating locally has gone from a trend to a mindset, Haight said people can still do more by taking that philosophy to their children’s school, the senior living facility, or their community center.
And while the public may realize the importance of farms and eating locally, according to Gergela and Haight successfully persevering farmland depends on public policy, competitive pricing, labor reform and supporting young farmers.