Farming Plays a Central Role in the History of Long Island

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Farming Plays a Central Role in History of Long Island 

Long Island in modern times is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the first suburb in the United States, a quiet place for New York City workers to make a home in exchange for a commute.

That’s true, but that’s not all the truth. From its earliest known inhabitants, Long Island has flourished as a center for farming. Blessed with natural beauty, rich soil and abundant water, Long Island has long provided the perfect agricultural environment.

Acabonac Farms is part of the movement to carry on the sustainable, centuries-old farming traditions of the East End. That’s reflected in its name, which is the Algonquin word for “root place.” The cattle operation at Acabonac Farms uses many of the environmentally friendly, healthy practices that local farmers have used on Long Island for generations.

Here’s a brief look at how farming has played a role in the history of Long Island.

Native Americans

Farming has been a part of life on Long Island. More than 300 years ago, when Europeans first reached North American shores, Native Americans had long been growing vegetables and fruit, and also raising poultry. Fisherman provided fresh seafood from the abundant waters.

Before the arrival of Europeans, various Native American tribes lived on the island, including the Lenape (who spoke an Algonquin family dialect), Montauk, and Shinnecock.

One the chief products of the area were the ingredients for wampum, a traditional shell bead that Native Americans exchanged like currency, according to the Richland Hills Historical Society. Farmers among the tribes also raised beans and corn.

Thanks to the abundance of the land, Native American tribes hunted deer, bear, turkey, quail, partridge, goose and duck. They also found plenty of seafood, including crabs, scallops, lobster, herring and bluefish.

Early Settlers

Once Europeans arrived, they, too, found Long Island the perfect place for farming. The Dutch settled the western end of the island and parts of what is now New York City. King Charles of England awarded much of the island to the Scottish poet and courtier William Alexander, according to “The History of Long Island” by Benjamin Franklin Thompson.

However, real estate deals also started early on Long Island. Alexander quickly sold the eastern end of Long Island to the English colonies of New Haven and Connecticut. That led to the establishment of English farms on the East End, and many of the people living there today descend from those early settlers.

The island stayed mostly rural until well into the 19th century. Ferry boats first opened the western end of the island to construction of homes for New York City workers. Streetcars expanded that farther east over the coming decades.

But farming continued as a central component of Long Island’s economy. Potatoes became a big crop (to please Irish and Northern European immigrants). By the early 20th century, Long Island had become one of the United States’ major agricultural centers. That was still the case in World War II, when farmers were excused from service and allowed to continue working their farms.

Today’s Long Island Farming Communities

Acabonac Farms is a proud member of a farming community that now goes back more than 300 years since European settlers arrived, and thousands of years before that with Native American tribes.

The amount of land devoted to agriculture on Long Island has remained steady at more than 37,000 acres since 1992 - much smaller than the past, but a consistent amount of land for almost three decades. “Although Long Island is home to the nation’s first suburb, it has retained its agricultural identity,” according to the New York State Comptroller’s Office.

Agriculture continues to employ more than 10,000 people on Long Island and generates jobs for tens of thousands more, according to the Long Island Farm Bureau. The benefit of locally sourced food is the biggest advantage, but the beautiful farms and rural atmosphere also attract many tourists to the area.

Today, more than 100 varieties of crops, as well as poultry and cattle, are raised on Long Island, making it the top region of New York state in terms of dollars generated by agriculture.

Farming on the East End has blossomed. Cattle, chicken, pig and sheep farms have grown in number. Part of the growth is driven by Farms for the Future, a program sponsored by the nonprofit Peconic Land Trust that provides mentorship and inexpensive land to those interested in becoming farmers, according to the New York Times.

In many respects, what is happening in agriculture on Long Island reflects the past. And thanks to this commitment by farmers, the island retains much of the natural beauty that has made it a beloved home to many different people for centuries.

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