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North Fork Trolley Takes 50 on 'Precision Farming' Tour

Second-annual agricultural stewardship tour opens eyes to new ways of Long Island farming.

Monday morning, a team of researchers from took about 50 people on a tour of local farms where “precision farming” practices are replacing more traditional methods of fertilizer and pesticide use.

Among the experts was stewardship coordinator Becky Wiseman, technicians Kevin Sanwald, Laurie McBride, and Ken Deegan. After a short presentation at the cooperative's headquarters in Riverhead, the group — which consisted of many movers and shakers in the farming and environmental conservation fields — boarded the and headed to Lewin's Sweet Corn Farm in Calverton, where Sanwald explained how many farmers are working with Cornell to trywhich is better for the environment.

The blend of 70 percent controlled-release and 30 percent soluble nitrogen fertilizer reduces potential for nitrogen overloading in groundwater and in surface waters and is a good blend for growers of crops like sweet corn that take a longer period of time to grow, Sanwald explained.

"It's risky for farmers to try something new, but we're here to help them calibrate their equipment and keep records of their yield vs how much fertilizer they use," he said.

Another stop was in Riverhead, where Laurie McBride explained her work in something called trap monitoring — a technique of monitoring what pests are where during the growing season in the orchard. She said she visits Harbes and other East End orchards once a week. Much of the damage from certain pests doesn't mean the fruit isn't edible, but if the fruit looks damaged then no one will pick it on the u-pick tours, she said.

"The grower loses a lot from cosmetic damage," she said. "If I find four or five pests in a trap in a week, that's OK, the grower can deal with that. But with 20 or more, the grower knows it's time to treat. This is a way of precision farming — growers are no longer just spraying on a calendar basis."

Stewardship coordinator Becky Wiseman said that farmers participating in these collaborative projects are part of the "BMP Challenge system," which reimburses farmers who experience any reduction in their harvest after utilizing approved conservation practices — the first time this system, which has seen success in California, is being put into practice in the North East.

"And the great thing about Cornell's relationship with the growers is the longterm trust we've built up over 100 years," said Wiseman, a former psychotherapist who's been working for Cornell for seven years. "It's hard to get people to change up the practices they've been doing for 200 years, but now many of them want to and we're here to help."

At a luncheon provided by Christopher Michael caterers of Jamesport served at in Riverhead, winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich spoke about how his industry and is pushing to work with Cornell to get funding use these techniques in the viticulture sense. And with 14 members in a newly certified sustainable wine growing program, Long Island Wine Country has a head start.

"We are really cutting edge here on Long Island as far as climate, environment, economic and social aspect of sustainable farming — we have to be," he said. "The health of our groundwater is too important, and ultimately, sustainable farming gives us a better product."

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