Down on the Farm

Apr 7, 2014

Last week we drove out along the North Fork of Long Island, just to see if it was still there. You can never be sure that any landscape survives long here, given the pace of development, so it’s best to check at regular intervals.

Long Island was one of the first places in America to enjoy the benefits of suburban development. In the 1940s and 50s, a tidal wave of tract houses began to submerge the old rural landscape. Now, two-thirds of the Island is covered. But, out on the far north eastern end, a few patches of agricultural land still survive. Driving out there can be a surrealistic experience. One moment you are in deepest suburbia, surrounded on all sides by strip malls and parking lots. The next, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you open a magic door and find yourself gliding through bucolic scenes of fields, paddocks and picturesque barns.

It is a strange landscape, part rural and part suburban. Small developments of very large houses sprout bizarrely in the middle of what were potato fields. Remnants of two hundred year old farms are wrapped around by new condominiums - charming enclaves of barns, tractors, and even slightly bemused goats and sheep still living between the subdivisions.

These last Long Island farms are vanishing at an alarming rate, replaced by ironical little signs saying "Peach Farm Estates" or "Woodland Acres." Home buyers out here want to be alone, and gaze out over pastoral scenes of open fields. And so they can, until the next development arrives a week later and they find themselves gazing into the back windows of another New Victorian.     

We would like to preserve the past, but development is an all-or-nothing thing. For a developer, building on half the farmland of Long Island is like eating half a packet of potato chips -it's just not psychologically possible. Yet there's no point in preserving a scrap of farmland here and a scrap there. If we are going to preserve the real agricultural past, something drastic needs to be done.

Thomas Jefferson wanted America to be a nation of small farmers, not a nation of long distance commuters. He saw virtue in rural life. It linked people to their place and community, and kept families together.  The nation of small farmers is long gone, but there’s no reason we couldn’t bring it back as a few hippies tried to do in the 1960s with their rural communes. We just need to persuade people to spread out, and stop huddling together around cities and strip malls. Instead of preserving the past we could recreate it, and dial back the twenty-first century to the beginning of the nineteenth.

There are about eighteen million acres of land in New York State. If my arithmetic is right, this would give each person about two acres, or an eight acre farm for a family: plenty of land for privacy and self-sufficiency – the simple life.  It’s a charming idea, but it may not be an easy one to sell, especially to suburban dwellers like us who regard the fertile soil as a good place to grow flowers, and animals as pets. On our drive out along the North Fork we saw people actually working in the fields, in the mud, and it didn’t look like much fun; which reminds us that Thomas Jefferson, although he thought farming a virtuous occupation, got other people to do all the work.

Copyright: David Bouchier