While much of Suffolk County abandoned its agricultural heritage in the 20th century, portions of the North Fork’s two towns still serve as reminders of that way of life.
Each year, Riverhead and Southold draw thousands of berry, pumpkin and apple pickers. Their vineyards attract busloads of tourists nearly every weekend. Together, their 25,000 acres of farmland account for nearly two-thirds of the agricultural space in Suffolk, a county of 1.5 million people.
While it may seem like the rural stretch along Sound Avenue and Route 48 might remain farmland forever, it’s hard not to notice just how many for sale signs have popped up in recent years. Currently, 19 parcels comprising well over 500 acres are listed for sale along that corridor, between Wading River and Orient. Though that accounts for only a small percentage of the North Fork’s overall agricultural acreage — and only a little more than half the number of farms listed for sale in the two towns — local farmers say it’s indicative of a changing industry.
“It’s a sign of what’s going on with Long Island agriculture,” said Mark Zaweski, a fourth-generation farmer from Calverton and chair of Riverhead Town’s farmland preservation committee. “Things are not that good out here.”
Mr. Zaweski’s story is not uncommon. His great-great-grandfather began tilling the fields in Riverhead in 1895, and his family stayed in the business. His farm, MKZ Farm in Calverton, is 100 acres. But none of his seven children is entering the field.
“It’s expensive to produce a crop,” Mr. Zaweski said, citing taxes and regulations on farmers as contributing factors.
Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, added that the “for sale” signs popping up over the past couple of years are “very concerning to us.” The group continues to work on ways to make farming viable for the next generation, while the Peconic Land Trust has been forging ahead with similar goals.
The average age of a farmer rose by two years — from 55 to 57 — between 2010 and 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During that same period, the number of farmers over age 75 rose by 30 percent and the number under age 25 dropped by 20 percent.
Syma Gerard, a local real estate agent who’s dealt strictly with East End land sales for 20 years, said younger farmers can’t afford the large farms for sale in the area — and most of those who can afford them don’t want quite that much land.
“The ideal call I get — and I get many — is somebody [who] wants 20 to 30 acres of land with a house already on it they can fix up,” she said. “Or a place they can build a house.”
Foreign investment on the North Fork has picked up in recent years as well, she said. While European buyers looking for a new place to start a winery were not uncommon before, she said the Chinese market has recently found value in the area. One piece of land — 66 acres at the intersection of Northville Turnpike and Sound Avenue — is currently in contract with buyers from China.
According to the USDA, the average cost of an acre of farmland in New York State last year rose by 11 percent, a bigger increase over the previous year than in any other state except South Dakota. Yet farmers looking to buy on the North Fork wish they could purchase land at its average statewide cost for 2015: $3,000 per acre. An acre of farmland for which development rights have been sold — meaning it can be used only for agricultural purposes — costs more than $20,000 in Riverhead and Southold. Suffolk County farmland with full development rights intact sold on average for more than $85,000 per acre between 2003 and 2013, according to Farm Credit East.
Even for developable farmland, restrictions are tight. In Riverhead’s R-80 zone, much of which is used for agricultural purposes, 70 percent of the land would need to be preserved for agriculture if any subdivision were ever approved.
Richard Wines, who serves with Mr. Zaweski on Riverhead’s farmland preservation committee and is the chair of the town’s Landmark Preservation Committee, said the amount of land for sale might not be especially uncommon in the grand scheme of things.
“There is always some farmland being turned over, forever, basically,” said Mr. Wines, a sentiment echoed by Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), a farmer himself.
Photo caption: A 66-acre parcel on the west side of Northville Turnpike and Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Still, some of the land currently for sale is of concern to Mr. Wines, who pointed to the former Gabrielsen’s Farm on Main Road in Jamesport as a property he’d prefer not to see change hands.
Mr. Wines said the town is currently working to strengthen its Transfer of Development Rights program, which would encourage development in other areas of town in exchange for buying the rights to preserve farmland that is still developable — including some of the parcels currently listed.
In the early 2000s, Riverhead Town borrowed against future revenues in its Community Preservation Fund program, a 2 percent tax on real estate transfers. The town subsequently made close to $70 million in CPF purchases, making it the Long Island town with most preserved land at 7,400 acres. However, the town has no money left to spend on preservation.
When asked about the amount of farmland for sale, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said he has not noticed any more land for sale than in the past.
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell noted that he seen an “awful lot of real estate signs going up in front of farms” in the past year or so. While he could not speak in detail about real estate discussions, he said the town “has already received some inquiries” from property owners with land on the market, and he hopes to keep that land in agricultural production. The town has about $9 million in its Community Preservation Fund, Mr. Russell said.
According to data provided by Suffolk Research Services, about 14 land transactions have taken place in Riverhead annually over the past 10 years while Southold sees just under 10 each year. In each town, the majority of those sales — which include vacant land, field crops, vineyards and more — took place before 2010.
So, land for sale doesn’t necessarily equate to land sales.
“I’m busy,” Ms. Gerard said. “But that doesn’t always mean I’m selling.”