06/01/11 12:33pm

It’s hard to think of something more evocative of summer than one of our local farm stands. After all, Suffolk County ranks No. 1 in the market value of its crops. Suffolk also tops the list in the Empire State in terms of the number of acres dedicated to nurseries and sod production. Suffolk is even king when it comes to raising ducks.

Farms are also important to Long Island because, as our friends at the Long Island Farm Bureau put it, they also provide a buffer against suburban sprawl and maintain the traditional rural character of the East End while providing the landscape and scenic beauty that help promote tourism.

However, the days of the East End as a leading agricultural region may be numbered, unless we get serious about protecting farms here and around New York State.

Over 613,000 acres of New York farmland have been lost to development in a single decade, and now a farm disappears every three and a half days.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms in Suffolk County decreased by 10 percent between 2002 and 2007. While total farmland acreage has remained stable for now, smaller farms under 50 acres — the vast majority of all farms — are the ones most likely to be hurt by the effects of skyrocketing fuel costs.

We need to strengthen the safety net for Long Island’s farms before this situation gets any worse. That is why Albany needs to help protect farmers and promote New York State products by allowing for the sale of wine in grocery stores.

These issues may seem unconnected. However, New York League of Conservation Voters and our partners at the American Farmland Trust have persuaded lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate to include provisions in the recently submitted Wine Industry and Liquor Store Development Act to help New York’s farms and wineries at the same time. Let me explain.

New York State currently has a Farmland Protection Fund that gives grants to municipalities to purchase development rights from farmers. Farmers can then re-invest the funds to maintain their facilities, buy more land, upgrade their equipment and stay economically viable (rather than succumb to development pressure).

The Farmland Protection Fund, however, has been battered and bruised through years of budget cuts and now receives just over $10 million a year, a meager 6 percent of the estimated need.

Besides being underfunded, the Farmland Protection Fund has actually made promises it can’t keep. The fund has a backlog of $75 million and a long list of farms that were promised help but never received it. This list includes farms in Jamesport, Southold, Calverton, Shoreham and Riverhead.

If all of our farms are going to survive, we have to look to new, creative ways to protect them.

There has been talk about allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores for several years. But for the first time, this issue is being connected with helping our farms in three ways.

First, if the sale of wine in grocery stores is allowed, East End wineries can dramatically increase their market presence in the Empire State. That will strengthen Long Island’s $65 million viticulture industry and the 4,000 jobs it provides.

Second, by dedicating a percentage of the tax revenues from the sale of wine to farmland protection, the state can begin to clear the backlog of projects and honor future commitments.

Third, by protecting farms from development, we can retain the East End’s rural character and protect precious open space. As we all know, undeveloped land is critical for the environment because it protects our drinking water and provides wildlife habitat.

The economic stakes for the East End could not be higher. Suffolk County farms constitute a $201 million industry that employs thousands of people. By allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores today, our elected leaders in Albany can help keep this economic engine running for good.

Residents of the East End will also be able to continue to enjoy those amazing farm stands every summer, as will our children and our children’s children.

Ms. Bystryn is president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. She resides in Remsenberg.