East End Farmers, Like Goodale Farms, Increasingly Turning to Livestock
Goodale Farms has been a staple at 250 Main Road in Aquebogue, in the Town of Riverhead, since the Civil War, and for many, many of those decades, the main product had been potatoes.
But Hal Goodale III, who is in his early 50s, took over the 45-acre farm about a dozen years ago, after deciding that the construction business was not for him. The family farm, he decided, was. But the potato farm his ancestors ran since the mid 1880s, Goodale decided, was out, and fresh eggs, milk, several kinds of cheeses, meat and produce, was in.
“I wanted my family and everyone else to eat healthy,” Goodale told Dan’s Papers in an interview. He encourages visitors to pick berries and urges children to feed the cows and goats. He wants, he says, people to know where their food is coming from.
Goodale is part of an expanding movement among Long Island’s East End farmers: Potatoes, once as much a part of Long Island’s identity as its beaches, are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and, according to Rob Carpenter, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, are being replaced by produce.
“Farmers are diversifying and going into animal production,” Carpenter told Dan’s. “There are more farmers now producing animals to meet the local needs.”
There is some extra-special about food directly from the ground.
“If you ever eat an ear of corn from a local farm, you wouldn’t want to go back to a supermarket,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said that, in 1985, there were 7,000 to 8,000 acres of potatoes on the East End. Today, he said, there may be as few as 1,000 acres.
Herb Broder, a horticulture farmer in Center Moriches, has had a farm in his family for over 100 years.
“You can count on two hands the number of farmers on the East End who still grow potatoes,” Broder said. In addition to poultry, he said, trees, bushes and sod growth is also highly popular. He estimated that there are some 3,000 East End acres devoted to sod, 3,000 to grapes and 3,000 to horticulture.
“Here on Long Island, farmers need (to earn) thousands of dollars per acre,” Broder said. “They need horticulture.” That is because Long Island is one of the most expensive places in New York State to farm, with an acre costing over $100,000.
Russ McCall, owner of McCall Wines in Cutchogue, has a 200-acre farm. He only needed about 50 acres for grapes, he said. About a decade ago, he started raising produce, and now has about 90 cows.
The Farm Bureau estimates that there are about 550 farms on the East End, comprising 35,000 acres. Of those, the bureau said, about 22,000 are preserved, meaning they are to be used for farming and cannot be developed for housing.
The Peconic Land Trust, a nonprofit that was formed in 1983, has been a driving force to preserve farmland in Suffolk. In a 2013 viewpoint piece in the Southampton Press, Trust president John v.H Halsey issued an ominous warning:
“If we as a community do not change the status quo, we will have very few farmers producing food on the South Fork within a generation” Halsey wrote. “If we want local food and the farmers who produce it to endure, all sectors of our community must work together to make it happen.”
In 2008, the Trust started its Farms for the Future Initiative, through which it seeks not only to protect the farmland, particularly those areas threatened by development, but also to develop and expand a farmland leasing program.
Tom Hart, a farmer in Orient and is among the growing corps of produce farmers, leases about 10 acres from the Peconic Trust. The Trust leases land at rents of $100 to $300 per acre per year.
“It used to be all potatoes around here,” McCall said. “Now, there are a lot of people raising sheep and cattle.”
Chris Browder, 60, and his wife, Holly, 46, were Wall Streeters. Chris was an investment banker and Holly worked for the business strategists McKinsey & Co. In 2009, they ditched their pin-striped suits for overalls and opened a farm, Browder’s Birds, in Mattituck.
Chris got interested after reading Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which discusses society’s relationship to food and production.
“It seemed like a dream,” Holly said. “But we were crazy enough to try it.”
They began raising chickens and sheep. Holly said she has been gaining notoriety at local clothing stores for the sweaters she designs using the wool she shears from her flock of Cotswold sheep.
“People want local clothing,” she said.
Long Island’s East End is about the most expensive farming region in the state. An acre costs about $100,000 to $150,000, according to the Farm Bureau. But Suffolk County has a long history of trying to preserve farmland. In the 1970s, the county legislature authorized legislation — the first in the country — to purchase the development rights to farmland to assure that agriculture, not commercial development, would dominate the area.
So, is potato farming dead on Long Island?
“It’s never gone,” said Carpenter, of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “But it would take a lot for it to make a comeback.”