Survey says: Suffolk County farms taking larger loss

05/30/2014 8:00 AM |
Farmer Debbie Schmitt at her new semi-mobile farmstand that she had built toward the end of 2013 on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: BARBARAELLEN KOCH )

Farmer Debbie Schmitt at her new semi-mobile farmstand that she had built toward the end of 2013 on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

As production costs for Suffolk County’s farmers rise, the return they receive on that investment is going down, painting a “gloomy” picture for the future of Long Island’s farm operations, according to new data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

County-specific numbers released in May, known as the USDA Census of Agriculture, reveal that local farmers’ losses jumped by nearly 70 percent in 2012, compared to losses reported in 2007 on average. Numbers show that nearly half of Suffolk County’s farmers in Suffolk experienced average losses of close to $125,000 in 2012, compared to about $75,000 five years earlier.

The report compares data collected in voluntary surveys of growers conducted in 2007 and 2012.

While the more recent results might paint a dark picture for the future of Suffolk farmers, the situation may not be quite as bad as the census indicates. Statewide data on the health of agricultural markets nationwide, released by the USDA in February, cited a $1 billion increase in market value for agricultural products sold in New York — an 18 percent jump over the same five-year period.

In addition, factors like Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact and the fact that the data came from farmers themselves — and therefore could be inflated — indicate that there still hope for the local farming industry.

Not only did average production costs at Suffolk’s 604 participating farms rise by 20 percent from 2007 to 2012 — from an $177,000 to $224,000 — but the market value of items produced also decreased — by 5 percent, according to the USDA.

Most of those expenses can be attributed to the cost of labor and fuel, said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, who added that upstate producers are benefiting from a promising dairy industry that isn’t present on Long Island. Just over half of all Suffolk farms reported a loss in 2012.

While many farmers use diesel fuel, which tends to be more expensive, unleaded gas prices on Long Island rose from an average of $2.50 a gallon in 2007 to about $4 a gallon in 2012, according to longislandgasprices.com, which tracks fuel prices daily. Data on diesel prices wasn’t available.

Mr. Gergela noted that Hurricane Sandy hit toward the end of the growing season, and may have impacted some — but not all — of the county’s farm operations.

He said the data confirms the vulnerability of the East End’s farming industry.

The area’s farmers “are in very bad financial straits,” he said, explaining that some farmers are having trouble getting the loans and mortgages they need to ensure their operations live on.

“All my life, every single farmer I know has always kept a positive attitude. They are always eternal optimists,” Mr. Gergela said. “I am really seeing my friends down in the mouth because we are struggling. It has not been getting better. Their spirits are down.”