Editorial: Keeping Farmers from Going Extinct

As farmers on the East End begin to harrow their fields this spring, they’re following a career path and a human tradition dating back to the beginning of civilization. Because of the nature of their work, they see things many of us whose daily routine involves an office and a desk will never see.

They feel the cracking soil that demands irrigation. They’re quick to notice the first small insects that could destroy an entire season’s crop. Their early spring planting schedules are subject to the whim of both this particular season and to shifts in the climate that makes every season more volatile and unpredictable. Each year, there’s the possibility that the fall’s bumper crop of pumpkins could be laid waste by a hurricane.

There’s been a great interest among the general public in recent years for growing plants and for gathering seeds, for learning about where seeds come from and how their progeny change with cultivation. 

We’re excited to see this public interest in where our food comes from, and in what it takes to cultivate it. But there’s so much to this discussion, and there’s so much science being done every day that changes our long-held beliefs about the interactions of cultivated plants and animals with insects and the natural world. It’s a web we’ll never be done studying.

Many of the East End’s small farms have been great laboratories for this work, and we’ve devoted a great deal of space in this edition of The Beacon to learning about the challenges faced and innovations fostered on farms here. It’s an important topic, and it’s one we’ve only scratched the surface of in our coverage.

Southold bee rancher Laura Klahre, one of the panelists at a recent forum with local farmers at the Northville Grange, has it right when she encourages all of us to try our hand at ripping up a bit of our monoculture of a lawn and trying our hands at growing food. Now is the perfect time to go outside and do just that.

Ms. Klahre understands that many of us will fail at this task, but she also understands that, by working to cultivate plants, we will gain a newfound respect for the grueling work of farming. We’ll also learn a great deal about the symbiosis between our actions and the natural world, about the necessity of creating space in our micro-habitat for pollinators, about the way different types of plants work together to boost one another’s well-being, from marigolds that repel pests to companion crops that grow better together to legumes that help build up the health of our long-neglected soil.

Merely a generation ago, most of us who live in the country had some direct experience with the way our food is grown — we were farmers or had family members who were farmers or purchased our food directly from farmers whom we knew from being part of a community.

Despite the intense interest in local food on the North Fork, the race to the bottom of pricing of food produced at mega-farms across the United States and around the world has put local food prices out of reach of many residents of the East End. 

Our farmers, who are living on a shoestring themselves, recognize this dynamic, and are often among the first to donate their excess produce to food banks. They’re the last people who want to see the fruits of their labor go to waste.

But those of us who have the means to buy locally don’t always understand all the regulations and market forces at work to make farming such a difficult career choice here. We hope we’ve shed some light on these issues in this month’s edition of The Beacon.

The next time you visit a local farmer’s market and get sticker shock when looking at the prices, understand that the farmers here are up before dawn, wearing headlamps as they harvest produce to bring to markets all across the region, and are often still at work late into the night, keeping their crops safe from pests and repairing machinery that is essential to the survival of their businesses. The potential for their own extinction as businesspeople is as real as the sun and rain, every day of every season that they continue to work this land. Every time we shop locally, we help keep a farmer alive. It’s worth the price.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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