Saving Farms, Not Just Farmland

Growers, lawmakers brainstorm ways to foster agriculture on East End
Strategies that could help bolster agriculture here were foremost during a meeting at East Hampton Town Hall Monday. Durell Godfrey

A round-table discussion on agriculture on the East End drew a circle of more than two dozen farmers, legislators, and others to East Hampton Town Hall on Monday, where growers described their biggest obstacles and floated ideas about what can be done by public entities to ease their way.

When open space and farmland preservation efforts began decades ago, there was little belief that farming itself could also be preserved here, Supervisor Larry Cantwell said in introductory remarks on Monday.

Now, he said, there is “a new generation that wants to be involved in farming . . . a real opportunity that has established itself as a result of saving the resource.”

The time has come, he said, to have a discussion “among farmers, planners, and others to see how we can make this better,” and make more land available for crop production.

The meeting was hosted by the Suffolk County Planning Commission, through its East Hampton representative, John Whelan.

The task, said David Calone, the commission’s chairman, is to determine what actions can be taken on local, county, state, and federal levels to address the issues impacting farmers, such as water quality, immigration, or housing for workers.

In East Hampton, efforts were under way this week to establish a committee to advise the town board on agricultural affairs, at the suggestion of Reed Jones, the planning board chairman, and Ian Calder-Piedmonte, a farmer and planning board member.

Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who will organize the group, said Tuesday that it is “really exciting to be putting it together.”

Among the local farmers in attendance were some with a multi-generational legacy, such as Bill Babinski of Wainscott, Dean Foster of Sagaponack, and David Falkowski, a Bridgehampton mushroom grower, and others who have landed here more recently, drawn by the fine soils and market opportunities, such as Amanda Merrow of Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett. Scott Chaskey, the longtime expert farmer behind the area’s first community supported agriculture effort, Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, was on hand, as was John v.H. Halsey, the president of Peconic Land Trust, which owns and leases farmland to Quail Hill and other farmers.

Alex Balsam is a partner with Mr. Piedmonte in Balsam Farms, which hasa farmstand on Town Lane in Amagansett.

Their farm, said Mr. Balsam, is in its 12th year and, from a start with $3,5000 in seed money, it has grown to employ 40 people to help with production on some 50 leased acres, with 15 tractors — tractors being a farmer’s measurement of success, he said.

In East Hampton, both Ms. Merrow and Mr. Balsam said, one of the largest impediments to growth is gaining approval to erect structures such as barns, greenhouses, or fences, under the procedure dictated by the zoning code. People “need to tolerate” farms, he said, and the town should adopt “local code that doesn’t hinder agriculture.”

Mr. Babinski, who went through a protracted process to gain approval for a barn on his farm, agreed. He suggested adding an agricultural category to the town code, in addition to the separate regulations for commercial and residential development.

The cost of land, whether to lease or purchase is a problem. Another major issue is worker housing. One speaker suggested that towns could allow farms to provide seasonal temporary housing on site, as was traditionally done. Legal precedent under the state agriculture and markets law has overridden local restrictions on such housing, said Joe Gergela of the Long Island Farm Bureau, but on the East End, only the town of Riverhead specifies it as a right.

“Farmers need a little more protection here,” said Mr. Falkowski, in terms of protecting their rights and warding off unwarranted complaints. “The wrong neighbor with deep enough pockets can be difficult for a farmer to deal with,” Mr. Calder-Piedmonte said.

Several North Fork growers were also on hand, as were representatives of farm credit bureaus and other agencies.

“Farmland is a huge part of our heritage,” said Representative Tim Bishop, who attended Monday’s meeting. “It’s also a huge part of our economy.” Mr. Bishop said he supports enacting two pieces of tax code legislation that would help farmers — one that would defer payment of estate tax on family-owned farms so long as they remain in agricultural production, and another that would ease the tax penalty imposed on families who sell the development rights to their land and opt to receive the proceeds over time.

Mr. Halsey said that East End municipalities have been successful at protecting open agricultural land, but have not necessarily managed to ensure that the acreage continues to be farmed.

He suggested that the East End towns use community preservation fund money to purchase additional rights from landowners who have already sold the development rights to their lands, in order to gain the ability to require its use for farming.

“I think the conversation has turned from saving the farmland to saving the farms,” said County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who also took part.

In addition, Mr. Schneiderman said, “now we really need to talk about an environment that is conducive to keeping farming alive as an industry.” He underscored the impact of regional issues, such as transportation and other infrastructure issues, affordable housing, and the availability of workers and needed services, on farmers.

A staffer from Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone’s office said that, beginning this year, the county has tailored its development rights purchase program to limit the amount of time that protected farmland can remain fallow.

Mr. Whelan said he was looking forward to working with the town to address situations where preserved agricultural land is being misused — becoming a de facto lawn for neighbors, for example, rather than remaining in production.

“There’s a whole renaissance, really, I feel, in terms of young people who want to get involved in this,” Mr. Cantwell said at a town board meeting on Tuesday.

In his comments on Monday, Mr. Gergela agreed. With the local food movement spurring more young people to farm, it is a “very exciting time,” he said. However, he warned, in an atmosphere where it is difficult to make a farm business work, many farmers are reaching “a tipping point. If we’re going to have sustainable agriculture, and viable, then we need a better plan,” he said.