Most teenagers who grow up on the rural East End can’t wait to fly the coop. Their sights are set on a big city, an unfamiliar college campus or anywhere but here.
After growing up on her family’s farm in Wading River, Rose Andrews was no exception. Though she loved the farm, Andrews longed for stability; security from the many uncertainties farm life can bring.
She graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Connecticut and spent time training as a loan officer at Farm Credit East, a borrower-owned lending cooperative that serves the agriculture industry. But the 9-to-5 desk job didn’t suit an unfulfilled Andrews, who returned to farm the 70 acres in Wading River that have been in her family for three generations.
Andrews is glad her path led her here, back home with a new vision.
“It’s the best thing I ever did,” she said in a recent interview on a rainy spring morning. “I learned a ton about the economic side of farming.”
It gave her space away from the family business (the grass is always greener) to explore, Andrews said, admitting that if she had just returned home right after college, she would have always wondered about the what-ifs.
“I went to school for ag for a reason,” Andrews, 25, said. “I think I always knew that I wanted to be involved in [the farm].”
As many generational farms approach a transitional phase, Andrews and her three brothers are part of a growing number of millennial and Gen Z farmers in the area being primed to take the reins of their family operations.
The United States Census of Agriculture, taken every five years, found that the average age of a farmer was 57.5 years old in 2017.
As farmers age, what becomes of their land is a crucial question that many are attempting to answer. For those with children or grandchildren who aren’t able to or aren’t interested in taking over, this can be a tempting time to sell to an eager developer as interest in the North Fork surges to an all-time high.
“We’re working the land that our parents have farmed and our grandparents have farmed and it’s definitely in our favor,” Andrews said. “It’s hard to say ‘just become a farmer,’ if you’re not coming from a generational family farm. It’s almost impossible.”
But not definitively impossible.
“It takes perseverance,” said Rob Carpenter, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “Finding the right resources, being able to navigate through many systems just to get up and running. It’s not easy.”
Access to land and capital is the number one challenge cited by all interviewed for this story, from generational kids like Andrews who say that any plans to expand operations are stymied by the cost of land, to new farmers who may not have the capital to purchase or rent land and invest in equipment for a startup.
Groups like Farm Credit East and the Peconic Land Trust are helping to address those challenges by dismantling some barriers for agriculture enterprises.
In 2005, Farm Credit East established FarmStart, a program that makes capital investments of up to $75,000 to startup farmers throughout the northeast.
Locally, the Peconic Land Trust has responded to development pressures and climbing real estate prices by not only preserving farmland, but ensuring that those properties remain active in production.
“This is where I’m hellbent,” said Dan Heston, who manages the Farms for the Future initiative for the PLT. “If you just protect the land, it’s just land. It’s not a farm until you have a farmer.”
In an area where even preserved farmland can sell for north of $50,000 per acre, the program aims to affordably lease land to new — and not necessarily young — people eager to give farming a shot. “We get people in their 20s and we get people in their 50s, second career people, and give them a place to try farming without so much risk,” Heston said.
Annual lease rates for the program range between $150 and $470 per acre, depending on amenities like deer fencing and water irrigation.
Participants can also access a shared equipment co-op, since equipment alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars, as well as lean on fellow farmers and land trust employees for shared knowledge.
The 16-acre Charnews Farm in Southold is one of the land trust’s properties that serves as an incubator for the program.
Helena Ludrosky of the brand-new Fishtail Farm is farming a one-acre lot at the agricultural center located on Youngs Avenue. This year marks her eighth in farming, but first on her own.
In her mid 20s, the St. James native quit her jobs waitressing and teaching art to pursue an interest in farming, first through WWOOFing — World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The work-trade program allowed Ludrosky to travel and meet like-minded people on farms including an animal sanctuary, dahlia farm and organic vegetable farms in California, Hawaii and New Zealand before she landed back on the island and worked for several seasons at the HOG Farm in Brookhaven.
“I’ve always wanted to work outside and I became really interested about where my food comes from: what’s on it, who’s growing it,” Ludrosky said.
She plans to offer both a produce and floral CSA this season and is passionate about regenerative, no-till techniques lauded by sustainability experts.
Ludrosky is also candid about having to work a second job waitressing and bartending to make it work. “But a lot of farmers have to do that, they have to balance it out until they can get their business off the ground, which is probably the case for a lot of businesses.”
Heston said that’s the kind of outlook the land trust board looks for when selecting from the applicant pool. “The hard part is you have to be patient. It isn’t going to happen the first season,” he said. “You’ve got to be willing to try new things. When things don’t work out, you’ve got to drop them, pivot and do something else.”
Leslie and Priscilla Howard of Priscilla’s Farm are a perfect example of that. They began in 2018 with just 10 CSA members and enough capacity for one farmer’s market. Now in their fifth year, they are up to three and a half acres, approximately 30 weekly CSA members, two farmer’s markets and an organic certification.
“They’re our stars down here at this point,” Heston said of the couple. “They’ve made a real commitment to [farming].”
Thinking back to their first season at Charnews, Leslie Howard admits it was harder than he thought. He learned that even on just an acre, doing things manually was backbreaking work. “In the beginning, we didn’t have sprinklers,” he explained. “I learned over time that you can’t water everything by hand, because you’d spend all day watering.”
Those lessons also led Howard, 47, to adopt methods like flame weeding and invest in used farm equipment including a 1953 Ford Golden Jubilee tractor, a 1949 Allis-Chalmers and 1948 Ford 8N — which took some tinkering on Howard’s part to get up and running.
Beyond the Charnews property, the land trust continues to connect farmers with land in innovative ways.
Just across the street from the Charnews Farm at Cleo’s Corner at Route 48 and Hortons Lane, the land trust is at work restoring the historic Lt. Moses Case house, which dates to 1747.
Once the restoration is completed, the house and surrounding five acres will be leased to a farmer who will tend the land as part of the Farms for the Future initiative.
Howard said that when the time comes, he and his wife plan to apply for the property. “That would be great if we get that,” he said. “It’d be just the right size for us.”Connections between the Peconic Land Trust, hopeful farmers and landowners is precisely how Ryan Lertora met landowners Kim Frank and Jeffrey Brown and, as a trio, founded Jamesport Farmstead in 2020.
Lertora, 33, spent more than two years searching for farmland with his wife, Hallie, after moving back to Long Island from a diversified organic farm in Maine.
“We both grew up in Northport, so it was important for us to come back and start our family near our extended families,” Lertora explained. “It was quite a process to find land for a young person without the means to purchase land,” he said, adding that it didn’t make sense to lease land.
Lertora toured the North Fork with Heston and ultimately connected with Frank and Brown, who owned more than 50 acres in Jamesport and were looking to connect with a farmer. “It was a fast friendship,” Lertora said. “We’re still in the process of proving our business model. With some more hard work, we can make it work economically and ecologically.”
Everything on the certified organic, no-till farm is done by hand, which has environmental benefits and also allows Lertora to maximize space and grow more crops in a smaller area.
Lertora said that throughout nearly a decade working on other farms, he’s noticed an uptick in interest in farming among people his age.
“Younger folks getting into farming are doing it with a bend towards ecology, betterment for the community and earth and a holistic approach to growing food,” he said. “And how food is produced. Not just thinking about the year’s harvest, but thinking about it in a longer arc of time.”
Working outdoors, with your hands and owning your time, rather than staring at a computer screen, is also part of the allure. While college was rewarding — Lertora studied history at Hartwick College — it pales in comparison to the physicality of working on the farm.
“If you want to try something, don’t let your fear of failing get in the way,” he said.
The hard part after all, Lertora said, isn’t necessarily growing the food, but marrying that with a business model to sell what you grow.
Carpenter said he’s both encouraged by young people entering the industry and excited at the changes on the horizon.
“The idea that there is going to be a next generation keeping agriculture going is a positive sign,” he said.
Carpenter is also inspired by people like Andrews, who is currently taking steps to reinvigorate the Long Island Young Farmers Committee, which has been inactive for several years.
The group, defined by the New York Farm Bureau as being between 18 and 35, is a way for young people in the industry to get together socially and also have larger group discussions about issues impacting them.
“We’re really starting from scratch again,” Andrews explained.
Her head sometimes spins with both possibilities and anxieties for the future.
There are immediate, measurable objectives: increase greenhouse space by X, grow CSA memberships by Y.
But there are bigger issues that can keep farmers up at night. How can I farm more sustainably? What impact will climate change have on my farm? Can I compete with farms from Pennsylvania, where the minimum wage is half of New York’s? What about my student loans? Will I have health insurance for myself or my family? How will I deal with record-high inflation?
It will take some rethinking around the traditional farm.
“We’ll have to think a little bit outside the box. It’s not going to be perfectly manicured farms and corn blowing in the breeze,” Carpenter said, adding that things like container farming, sustainability and yes, even cannabis, will all play a role, he said.
Andrews is contending with this shift at her own family’s farm, notably by expanding their cut flower selection to keep up with trends dictated by consumer demand. “Little things create a big ripple,” she said, explaining that they planted dahlias for the first time in 2021 in response to their resurgence in popularity.
“It sounds silly, but even just a different color of something,” Andrews said, explaining her rationale behind growing more candy-striped beet varieties alongside traditional red beets. “People can get beets anywhere, they can get them at the grocery store. So the red and white striped beet might be the difference of someone coming to the farm stand.”
Despite nationally troubling statistics about aging farmers, today’s farmers on the North Fork may evoke a different image than the one you’re probably picturing in your head. At Jamesport Farmstead, for example, Lertora reports that 8 of 10 of the job applicants they get are women. The 2017 agriculture census also found that women represent 36% of all U.S. farmers and the number of minority producers is also on the rise. According to the census, the number of female producers increased 27% over 2012.
Andrews can’t picture herself doing anything else. Before returning home, she’d catch herself waiting for that 5 p.m. moment. But not anymore.
“It’s nice to get up and be excited about what you do. The possibilities are endless,” she said. “There’s a little bit of pressure, but it’s an honor,” she said, to be carrying on this tradition.
In the early mornings, she brings her dogs along to collect fresh eggs and cut flowers still wet with morning dew before heading to the farm stand to replenish what’s in season.
This work, grueling and tiring and sometimes never-ending, reaffirms her commitment to farming and to her family. Looking out at the acres, or expanse of the greenhouses, she feels the weight and responsibility for a moment. But there’s no time to idle. There’s always more work to do.