The Long Island Farm Bureau first began holding semi-annual dinners for farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 five years ago.
Heather Quinlan, a farm bureau board member who started the dinners, remembers the early days when about a dozen young farmers would attend the dinner meetings. Last Thursday night, in a greenhouse at the Half Hollow Nursery in Laurel, nearly 60 fresh-faced farmers turned out to eat a gourmet meal made with local ingredients by former Waldorf Astoria chef and current farm supply distributor Charles Germano, and to hear what they can do to help farmers with the myriad number of issues they face.
So it’s safe to say young farmers on the East End are growing in number and strength, but will that help the farm community as it faces some challenging tasks ahead?
“Everybody’s interested in local food. There’s been a real influx of smaller growers. Everybody wants to grow 10 acres and have their little farm stand by the road,” said Bob Nolan, who owns Deer Run Farms in Brookhaven. “This program has kicked it up a notch.”
Mr. Nolan, a past president of the farm bureau, has been active in federal issues on behalf of the group.
He said that Long Island farmers this year will face increased pressure because of the ongoing immigration debate. In addition to a shortage of workers with temporary work visas through the H2B visa program, local farm owners will likely need to verify Social Security numbers of potential employees online before they can be hired. He said that if the federal government would agree to provide more H2B visas for legal workers, farmers will support the verification of Social Security numbers.
Large growers here are also facing increased pressure due to the recently enacted Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires that farmers who gross more than $500,000 per year update equipment and complete much more paperwork than in the past.
The new law, he said, was enacted in part because of E. coli outbreaks of bagged produce from hot states in the western United States.
“We want safe food for everyone,” he said, adding that Northeastern growers have already proven their commitment to food safety by the fact that none of the contaminated food came from this area.
Mark Zaweski, another past president who owns MKZ Farms in Jamesport, said that the farm bureau is also looking to farm a portion of the former Grumman property at EPCAL, and to help local farmers make smart use of nitrogen fertilizers on their land, in order to keep the nitrogen from entering the groundwater or running off into the Peconic Bay Estuary or the Carmans River watershed.
To help face an uncertain future and, if possible, shape the nature of their industry and politics, he urged the young farmers to recruit more of their kind by, for example, becoming involved in the farm bureau’s “Ag in the Classroom” program, in which farmers visit elementary schools to talk about their work.
“Young kids ask the strangest questions,” he said. “They always ask me ‘how many horses do you have?’ I don’t have any horses.”