A youth movement down at the farm

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Mark Zaweski, owner of MKZ Farms in Jamesport, speaking at Thursday night's Young Farmers dinner.

When the Long Island Farm Bureau began holding semiannual dinners five years ago for young farmers age 18 to 35, only about a dozen showed up.

But last Thursday night, in a greenhouse at Half Hollow Nursery in Laurel, nearly 60 enjoyed a gourmet meal made with local ingredients by former a Waldorf Astoria chef, farm-supply distributor Charles Germano, and to learn about the issues farmers face.

“Everybody’s interested in local food,” said Bob Nolan, who owns Deer Run Farms in Brookhaven and attended Thursday’s dinner.

That not only draws people to dinner: It has opened the doors for young people who do not own a lot of property to get into farming. “There’s been a real influx of smaller growers,” Mr. Nolan said. “Everybody wants to grow 10 acres and have their little farm stand by the road.”

With its dinner program, the Farm Bureau is hoping to encourage those young people to get involved in the organization and bring some new blood to its advocacy work.

There are many issues in which Long Island farmers have a stake. A past president of the bureau, Mr. Nolan said this year they will face a shortage of workers with temporary work visas because of a national policy restricting them. And if pending legislation passes, farm owners may have to verify the Social Security numbers of potential employees online before they can be hired.

Mr. Nolan said that if the government would agree to let in more temporary workers, farmers would support the bill requiring verification of Social Security numbers.

On another front, large growers are facing increased costs due to the Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires farmers with gross revenues of more than $500,000 a year to modernize equipment and file much more paperwork than in the past, Mr. Nolan said. The law was enacted in part because of E. coli outbreaks caused by bagged produce from the western United States, he explained.

“We want safe food for everyone,” he said, but it’s self-evident Northeastern growers care about food safety because no contaminated produce has come from this area.”

Also on the bureau’s agenda is an effort to encourage the town of Riverhead to allow farming at the former Grumman property at Riverhead’s Enterprise Park at Calverton, according to Mark Zaweski, another past president who owns MKZ Farms in Jamesport. Also, the bureau hopes to encourage farmers to use nitrogen fertilizers more efficiently in order to keep the nitrogen from entering the groundwater or running off into the Peconic Bay Estuary or the Carmen’s River watershed.

Mr. Zaweski, who spoke at the session, urged farmers to become involved in the bureau’s “Ag in the Classroom” program, in which farmers visit elementary schools to talk about their work.

“Young kids ask the strangest questions,” he said. “They always ask me ‘How many horses do you have?’ I don’t have any horses.”

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