Editorial: Cooperative Extension grows over its 100 years

One hundred years ago, when Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County was started, Long Island had over 100,000 acres of farmland. Most of that acreage was dedicated to potatoes and, considering the massive expansion of the New York City suburbs, it’s interesting to note that potato farms once extended as far west as the Nassau-Queens line. Long Island’s glacier runoff soil was perfectly suited for the growing of potatoes.

Suffolk County was a different sort of place in 1917, which is also the year the United States gave up on its nonintervention policy and entered the Great War that had been raging in Europe since 1914. America was now a world power. On eastern Long Island, farms ran to salt water, fields were plowed and cultivated with teams of horses, there were no summer communities to speak of and a farmer this far from New York City could feel isolated and on his own.

Hence the vital importance of Cornell Cooperative Extension. The extension, which is affiliated with Cornell University, was formed as part of the national land grant university system started in 1862. It is amazing that something so far-reaching and so vital to the country’s future as setting aside land for future universities was begun as the Civil War was raging.

It does not seem possible that the Lincoln administration and Congress — made up, of course, of only the northern states — could have come up with something that important while putting down a rebellion by the southern slave states.

For Suffolk’s farmers, the experts at CCE were lifesavers. They worked directly with farmers on crop issues, helped them stay ahead of problems such as potato diseases and kept an industry so vital to this region healthy and moving forward. And today, the success of New York State agriculture is obvious: the state has more than 36,000 farms that produce nearly $5 billion in products each year, according to a report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. With a huge boost from eastern Long Island’s vineyards, the state ranks second nationwide in wine production. The Long Island Farm Bureau would say that eastern Long Island is among the best growing areas anywhere in the world.

Today, there are approximately 35,000 acres of farmland in Suffolk, producing a variety of crops and flowers. Something like 70 percent of Suffolk’s fruit-tree growers seek assistance from CCE . As a result, the average number of pesticide applications has dropped from five per season to about 1.5, according to the extension.

Successful growers like Jack Van de Wetering of Ivy Acres say the extension has done wonderful things for their enterprises. He pointed out that CCE even developed a new soil that allowed crops to grow without weeds. Ivy Acres has grown because of this; it now supplies Home Depot with flowers and serves 150 stores daily with its greenhouse product.

Edward Harbes, who manages the Harbes Family Farm enterprise, said the extension helped his business become a Long Island attraction.

The extension also now has a STEM program as well as a marine sciences program that is directly responsible for bringing back famed Peconic Bay scallops. Beyond that is another important effort by the extension: It launched Eat Smart New York to help people choose healthier food options.

All in all, Cornell Cooperative Extension is a great success.