From Ducks and Potatoes to Wine and CSAs: A History of Farming on Long Island by Marcia Kaplan Belgorod, Member, Tuv Ha’Aretz CSA

Marcia Kaplan Belgorod has been a member of Forest Hills Tuv Ha’Aretz CSA since its inception. She was an original core committee member. Marcia has been a locavore all her life ever since the stops at farmstands on those early Long Island trips with her parents.

I grew up on Long Island in southwestern Nassau County. At the time, there were still two small family farms in town, but by the time I was in my 20s, there were none. I remember that on weekends, particularly in the spring or fall, my parents would say, “Let’s go for a ride.” That meant that they would hand me a map of Long Island, and I would navigate as we drove east until my father got tired, or they became concerned about getting home too late, or we reached the end of the island. Sometimes we went along the North Fork; sometimes we stayed on the South Shore. Either way, at a certain point the landscape would change: the suburbs gave way to farmland where most of the farms grew potatoes or raised ducks.

In 1950s, there were almost 3,000 farms on Long Island. Agriculture developed in Nassau County for the easy shipment of goods to New York. As time went on, more of the area became a residential community for commuters to the “City” like my father, and the farms moved farther east. Today, there are only 4 farms in Nassau County, one of which is owned by the county and operated as a non-profit. Of the 700 farms left on the Island, the remainder is in Suffolk County.

Local Native American peoples were primarily hunters and fishermen, though a few grew corn. European settlers migrated from Massachusetts and brought their agricultural techniques; those who farm on Long Island today are largely descended from those who have farmed there since the 17th century. Much of what we know about life on these early farms comes from family traditions and from journals and diaries kept by women. Farms were self-sufficient, and families survived on what they grew and preserved.
Survival often depended on a single crop per season. Mary Cooper of Oyster Bay wrote in her diary in the 1700’s that her family was becoming bored of cherries. Later, she wrote that the pumpkins had not been harvested before an early frost, and the family would have to make do with apples (similar to our members voicing their disappointment with the copious zucchini and at the weather’s effect on peaches).

In the 19th century, technology and the Long Island Railroad changed the nature of farming. Farmers could produce more and ship their crops efficiently. Cordwood for heating and construction was the most profitable cash crop, providing currency for farmers to purchase manufactured goods. The crop mix gradually changed to accommodate the market, and farmers moved toward crops that could be stored and were favored by Irish and Northern European immigrants. Potatoes became a major crop after the Civil War; technology assisted to make them easier to grow and to harvest.
Long Island became one of the major agricultural areas in the United States in the early 20th century. World War I opened up more markets, but market prices went down during the 1920’s, which was followed by the stock market crash and the Great Depression. Farmers had to borrow cash for seed and equipment, and suffered with the rest of the country. However, WWII helped farming; farmers were excused from the wartime draft, so they could produce food for the war effort.

Duck farming began in the 1870’s with the introduction of Chinese Pekin ducks. Their quick maturation produces particularly tender meat, and demand for “Long Island ducks” grew during the 20th century. However, environmental concerns and land prices contributed to the decline of the duck industry and today, Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue is the last remaining duck farm.

After WWII, pressure to convert land to housing development increased, prompting farmers to sell out or to move farther east. Families like the Schmitts moved from Rosedale, to Farmingdale, to their current location in Riverhead. On the South Shore, farmland was squeezed between the demand for first homes to the west and for second homes to the east.

Viniculture came to the North Fork at the end of the 20th century; in Cutchogue, Alex and Louisa Hargrave established the first vineyards. Other growers, winemakers, and investors followed and today, the Island is one of the main wine-growing regions in the country with approximately 60 vineyards ranging from 2-1/2 acres to 500+ acres. Most wines are sold at the vineyards.

There are no large corporate farms on Long Island and local farmers explore innovative ways to market their produce; many like Fred Terry, whose family arrived in the area in the late 1600’s, originally sold to wholesalers. He switched to selling directly to consumers through farmers’ markets and experienced higher profits and got to know his customers, who benefited by getting fresher produce. Other farms, like our own Golden Earthworm, reach out to consumers via the CSA model.

The rest of the world may think of Long Island as full of suburban houses, beaches, and luxury homes. And yet, to this day Suffolk County is the fourth most valuable agricultural area in the country. Despite environmental concerns and economic pressures, the Long Island farm community continues to provide produce for markets throughout Long Island and New York City.

 

flandersduckThe Big Duck
In 1931, duck farmer Martin Maurer constructed the Big Duck at the edge of his property as a retail store for ducks and eggs. After the farm was sold, the structure was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and purchased by Suffolk County. The duck was moved it to its current location in Flanders and houses a gift shop and duck ephemera.

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