Fewer sales, more variety: Suffolk surpassed by dairy-heavy counties

Potted ornamental plants in one of the greenhouses at Jamesport Greenhouses on Herricks Lane. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Potted ornamental plants in one of the greenhouses at Jamesport Greenhouses on Herricks Lane. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

A Greek yogurt boom has brought herculean increases in sales to a couple of upstate counties in recent years, knocking Suffolk County out of its long-coveted spot as New York State’s No. 1 seller of agricultural products, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Between 2007 to 2012, the county fell to third in the state, according to the survey, which is conducted every five years.

Wyoming and Cayuga counties each experienced sales growth of more than 40 percent during the survey period, but sales in Suffolk County dropped by 1.29 percent, or about $3 million. The total market value of agricultural products sold in Suffolk in 2012 fell to $239 million.

Despite the drop, local farmers and industry experts said they aren’t worrying too much.

Last Wednesday, Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director Robert Carpenter said several factors contributed to Suffolk County’s fall to third place. He noted that New York State is now the nation’s top yogurt producer and that the demand for milk has sent more money flowing to the state’s dairy farmers.

AGbythenumbers“The two counties that [took] over the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings are very heavy in the dairy industry,” Mr. Carpenter said. “It is not that Suffolk County has lost a lot, it’s just that the commodity prices in those two counties went through the roof. That accounts for the large jump in their numbers.”

Wyoming County, in the Finger Lakes region, is now the state’s top producer, generating agricultural sales of more than $318 million in 2012. Central New York’s Cayuga County, now the No. 2 producer, pulled in $289 million in 2012.

County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) also took the ranking drop in stride.

“The figures don’t reflect so much our decline as they do the resurgence of agriculture upstate,” said Mr. Krupski, who owns Krupski Farms in Cutchogue.

But Suffolk’s figures aren’t only a reflection of the surge in dairy sales upstate; revenue generated by Suffolk’s largest commodity, floriculture — including cut flowers and potted plants — also took a significant hit during the survey years, dropping from $125 million to $97.8 million. That represented a decline of almost 28 percent, the report states.

Nora Catlin, floriculture specialist at Cornell Corporative Extension, attributes this decline partly to the recession and partly to societal change.

“Hard economic times certainly played its part,” she said. “People have less disposable income. As nice as flowers are, they are not perceived as something that is a necessity.

“I think it is fair to say there has been a downward trend in the interest in flowers. For example, people use to buy poinsettias as Christmas gifts and I don’t think you see much of that happening anymore,” she said.

Farmer Butch Lohwasser, who has operated Lohwasser Greenhouses in Manorville for nearly 50 years with his wife, Josephine, said he’s feeling the effects firsthand.

In addition, he said, people are purchasing fewer plants for their homes and gardens, and increased competition from big box stores has stifled small greenhouse operations.

“There are too many people involved,” Mr. Lohwasser said. “You can walk into a CVS, Walmart or a gas station and pick up flowers now. The small garden centers are closing up shop. It might be time to retire.”

While the greenhouse industry has suffered financial losses, USDA figures show Suffolk is still a leader in nursery stock crops and sod sales. Hoping to increase sales, Ms. Catlin said, some greenhouse growers are getting innovative and expanding their operations to grow produce and adopt hydroponic farming techniques.TR0312_AG_numbers2_BE_C.jpg

On top of falling revenues, Suffolk County growers faced operational costs that were 23 percent higher in 2012 compared to 2007. Most notably, the annual cost of fuel doubled for the average farmer — from $24,000 to $42,000 — according to the report.

And while a 2013 study conducted by the county found that 59 percent of farmers are very concerned about the future profitability of farming, Mr. Krupski said Suffolk County’s farming community remains strong. Most farmers have always had concern about the future of their industry, he said.

USDA figures show that Suffolk County farmers are also using diverse farming practices in other areas of agriculture.

The county ranks No. 1 in aquaculture sales thanks to the emergence of more oyster and bay scallop farms, Mr. Carpenter said. Additionally, Suffolk has increased its honey production by 92 percent and now ranks sixth in the state in Christmas tree sales. That’s an increase of 68 percent over 2007, when the county was ranked 18th in state.

“Both aquaculture and animal agriculture have increased quite a bit since 2007,” Mr. Krupski said. “A lot of these operations are small, so while you might not see big numbers, you do see more diversity in our agriculture — and that is really where our strength comes from.”

Credit: Goats at Goodale Farms on the Main Road in Aquebogue. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch file)