In December 2015, Suffolk County adopted an Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan. The previous plan was adopted twenty years ago. This new plan discusses the current state of agriculture, sets goals for the future and provides recommendations to increase competitiveness and resiliency. Here are some highlights from the 2015 Plan.
Did you know that Suffolk County is ranked third in value of agricultural production in New York? Pretty remarkable when you consider that the sector has shrunk from more than 100,000 acres of farmland decades ago to about 39,000 acres currently (about 6% of all the land located in the county). The last decade has actually seen a small increase in farmland acreage and a stabilizing of the number of farms located in Suffolk County. Half the acreage is protected by municipal governments or by non-for-profit organizations. The remaining farmland acreage is unprotected. Because farmland is typically flat and cleared, it is often a target for redevelopment.
The vast majority of Suffolk County farms are small, with about a third having less than 9 acres and another third being between 10 and 49 acres. The type of crops grown here has changed. Once known for vast potato farms, Suffolk County farmland is now more likely to be used to grow nursery stock, sod or wine grapes. Aquaculture is also on the rise, aided by the adoption of the Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program.
2015 Plan’s Vision
The 2015 Plan’s vision is “to foster adaptable public policy along with the commitment and support of the farming community to protect, encourage and sustain agriculture as an industry for future generations in Suffolk County.” The Plan’s vision wants local public policy to “strongly support…economic environments where agriculture can flourish” and “anticipate new challenges to Suffolk’s farming community and be flexible enough to embrace new solutions when needed.”
The 2015 Plan has several goals These include:
(1) preserving agriculture as an essential industry, preserving the quality of life in the county and generating economic activity to sustain complementary industries such as tourism;
(2) purchasing development rights to the unprotected farmland;
(3) incentivizing farmers to use best management practices to protect ground and surface waters, prevent erosion, and increase resilience to climate change and extreme weather events;
(4) retaining the culture of farming which strengthens community identity and contributes to economic development; and
(5) maintaining economic viability of the farming industry.
The 2015 Plan also has numerous objectives for these goals. These objectives include:
(1) supporting public policy to protect health, safety and the environment without hindering or discouraging agriculture;
(2) leveraging investments in infrastructure to support new farms and expanding marketing opportunities;
(3) nurturing public/private interest in diversification of crops, best management practices, and educational and technical support for farming;
(4) identifying challenges and creating strategies for overcoming challenges faced by farms;
(5) developing long-term strategies to protect ground and surface waters and preserve agricultural soils;
(6) identifying new crops and new methods to market them;
(7) preserving farmland; and
(8) maximizing governmental farmland preservation funds to protect Suffolk’s farmland.
Chapter 5 of the 2015 Plan contains many strategies to promote agriculture and agri-tourism. Some of these strategies include:
(1) taking advantage of the growing interest in farming by educating people about agricultural careers on Long Island;
(2) creating internships and apprenticeship programs;
(3) continuing to purchase farmland development rights;
(4) leveraging state and federal funding for farmland preservation;
(5) legislative reform to counter the impact of state and federal inheritance taxes on farmland;
(6) incorporating renewable energy as a way to counteract high energy and fuel costs;
(7) recommendations on branding, direct marketing opportunities, and investing in local food hubs and incubators;
(8) planning for climate change; and
(9) eliminating excessive regulations.
Related Programs and Town Regulations
The 2015 Plan also identifies municipal policies, programs, plans and regulations that concern agriculture and aquaculture. Some of these include:
(2) Suffolk County Shellfish Aquaculture Lease Program; and
(3) Town and Village Comprehensive Plans and Zoning and Subdivision Regulations that relate to agriculture.
The 2015 Plan gives examples of the latter. It notes that the Town of Babylon’s comprehensive plan does not discuss or set goals for agriculture. Its zoning code permits agricultural occupations in four of its fourteen zoning districts and has distance restrictions for horses and livestock. The Town of Brookhaven’s comprehensive plan does not have a section dedicated to agriculture but does have a section in its town code regarding the right to farm and protected farm practices.
The Town of East Hampton’s comprehensive plan has one stated goal related to preserving agriculture. It has a right to farm policy, a community preservation fund, and allows farming in many of its zoning districts. The Town of Huntington’s comprehensive plan includes a chapter on open space, including agriculture. It has an environmental open space and park fund and allows agriculture in fourteen of its 33 zoning districts. The Town of Islip allows agriculture in six of its 27 zoning districts, but there are also buffer zones and livestock restrictions. The Town of Riverhead’s comprehensive plan has a chapter on agriculture and town regulations giving farmers the right to farm without undue interference from adjacent landowners.
Shelter Island’s comprehensive plan does not discuss agriculture, but it does have a community preservation fund. It allows agriculture in four of its eleven zoning districts. The Town of Southampton’s comprehensive plan includes a section entitled “Vision for Agriculture,” which recognizes the importance of agriculture. Its town code recognizes the right to farm and exempts agriculture from noise pollution regulations. The Town of Southold’s comprehensive plan includes a chapter on agriculture, has a farm and farmland protection strategy and its town code recognizes farming as an essential activity.
Suffolk County’s new Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan is a comprehensive approach to protect and preserve a vital industry. It will be exciting to watch the county implement this plan.