Unlike most farmers across the nation, farmers on Long Island face a number of issues that are especially difficult to overcome. According to the most recent census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Long Island has 35,690 acres of land devoted to farming, about a quarter of the 150,680 acres available in 1950. “Our produce is just excellent, but we’re a tiny area,” Ross said. “Quality wise we got no apologies to make at all, we’re awesome… but small, and that’s not going to change.”
Small-scale farmers also face dealing with competition from developers, nursery owners and people that can afford to use acreage of land for equestrian or lawn purposes. The price of land has also been affected by this, and on average an acre of land costs $120,000 an up on Long Island. This is well above the means of most farmers who likely need multiple acres to farm, and must also pay for other farm expenses such as equipment and labor.
This is an issue that the Peconic Land Trust has been working towards overcoming for farmers since 1983. The trust is responsible for protecting around 11,000 acres of farmland on Long Island. After undergoing an application process, farmers are also able to lease this land, which comes equipped with deer fences and irrigation systems, saving farmers money on infrastructure costs.
“We're so dedicated to this because it’s our history, there are great soils that are very productive and it’s sort of integrally integrated into our economy,” said John v.H. Halsey, the president and founding member of the Peconic Land Trust. “It’s a heritage that really goes back thousands of years here that we’re trying to maintain here.”
Farmers on Long Island also must find a way to deal with finding people to harvest the land, and supplement high labor costs. “It’s hard to find labor here because it’s hard for people of modest means to live here,” Halsey said. “It’s not like you can find a lot of local people here interested in working on farms, and there aren't a lot of people here that are living nearby farms that are looking for that kind of work.”
However, even if farmers are able to overcome the issue of obtaining land and a work force, some still struggle with just making profit because of these expenses. While there has been a high demand for local produce especially among local restaurants, farmers such as Haspel are not able to live sustainably on that income alone. “They have to have a combination of ways in which they sell their product,” said Jerilyn Woodhouse, a Long Island contact of the New York Small Scale Food Processors Association and owner of the Taste of the North Fork food supply business.
“[They] can't depend just on restaurants, so [they] have to have a farm stand, or have to have [their] own wholesale account and in the case of what I do, it creates another stream of income for farmers.” Woodhouse provides services for farmers, including Haspel, by taking their raw materials and canning or jarring it into value added products. She does this for ten to twelve local farmers year round. “They can sell it at their farmers market, they can sell it at their farm stand, and in some cases they can have a website and sell it that way,” Woodhouse said.
The struggle for small-scale farmers to make money also stems from the lack of support from the U.S. government, that industrial or larger scale conventional farms receive in the form of subsidies. This also affects the competition of pricing for goods that small farmers produce compared to the price that has been branded in grocery stores. “The price you see in the supermarket is not the real price of food,” Haspel said. “It’s a subsidized price as opposed to the smaller farmers that tend to be the biodynamic and organic farmers, [which] are not subsidized. So we have that battle going on.”
This is not the only battle when it comes to the farm to table movement. Because of what is available in supermarkets, some people are not accustomed to the difference in taste of food that is really fresh. Kathleen Masters, the head of the non-profit Amagansett Food Institute, thinks that although the South Fork Kitchen at Stony Brook University's Southampton Campus isn't successful financially, it has allowed customers to know what North Fork farmers and local product business producers have to offer.
“At this point if it were a for profit business it would be failing, because there are not yet enough people eating every day in the cafeteria,” Masters said, “[but] we’re doing it because the university asked us to, but also as a way to [show the campus community] that we have all these wonderful products that are coming from our farms and producers on the East End of Long Island, and they should taste them, and also to sort of teach people what real food tastes like.”
Although the farm to table movement has helped to raise awareness and generate a buzz among local consumers, John Ross, the pioneer of farm to table cuisine on Long Island, still sees room for improvement. “One of the continuing problems of Long Island and the North Fork is that there is a big gap between the people that have, and those that don’t,” Ross said, “A person that’s barely able to feed their family isn't gonna be buying a $37 chicken,” such as the organically raised chickens that can be purchased from small farmers.
“Real food can be produced economically, and it can be entered into the food system,” Ross said. At his restaurant there used to be a special for a $2 bowl of corn on the cob that was picked fresh, and served just hours after being picked from the bushel. “People hadn’t tasted corn that was that fresh," Ross said, "and when it’s that fresh it bursts with sugar and it’s just delicious.”