Southold Town is known for its expansive farmland, but its town code has been silent for years on many modern agricultural practices.
This Tuesday, April 25, the town adopted 13 definitions of modern agricultural practices, with plans afterward to develop a section of the code that spells out how modern farmers and viticulturists can use their land.
The changes are the product of years of discussion at the town’s Agricultural Advisory Committee.
The committee’s chairman, Chris Baiz, told the town board at an April 11 public hearing that the changes are being considered to create a “viable list of meaningful definitions of common day-to-day practices at this time,” defining agricultural processing and its associated buildings and on-farm direct marketing, and adding references to aquaculture.
Mr. Baiz said the changes are designed to help farmers innovate and make more money, so they can afford to cultivate some of the most expensive farmland in the country.
For example, said Mr. Baiz, who owns the Old Field Vineyard, “the vineyard industry and the incumbent wine product has allowed a better cash flow to acres of physical planted crops, so the farmer can not only pay for his operation but can pay the mortgage on his land, pay his taxes and then … go home and support his family.”
But some farmers who turned out for the public hearing were concerned about some recent tweaks to the bill, including one that requires that 60 percent of the sales at a “direct farm marketing building,” known commonly as a farm stand, be of crops grown “from a single operation.”
Sam McCullough of Cutchogue, who has farmed on the North Fork since the 1970s, grows wine grapes in Jamesport, but sells them wholesale to eight different local wineries
“If they weren’t allowed to use my grapes, I wouldn’t have any place to sell them,” he said.
Long Island Farm Bureau Policy Director Jessica Anson agreed.
“The final draft is not the same draft seen by the public and the press,” she said, adding that some of the definitions seem “overly restrictive.”
“It’s standard practice to supplement with other local produce from other local growers,” she said. “The words ‘from a single operation’ are overly restrictive.”
Beekeeper Laura Klahre bought a two-acre parcel of farmland in 2015, and she is concerned about the section of the bill that defines “bona fide farm operation” as a farm with more than seven acres and average gross sales of $10,000 or more or a farm with less than seven acres and average gross sales of $50,000 or more.
“To me all farming and farmers should be embraced,” she said. “The financial threshold should be $10,000 no matter what the size of the parcel. It seems off.”
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said those definitions are the same as those used by New York State’s Department of Agriculture and Markets.
“The Town of Southold should embrace a larger definition because of the high land cost,” she countered.
Mr. Baiz agreed.
“Ag and markets doesn’t really understand how we operate down here on this high cost structure,” he said. “The generation replacing us is the first generation that will have full-on the high cost of these lands to incorporate.”
He added that the committee had added a third definition of a bona fide agriculture operation, as one that “has been issued a farm stand operator permit,’ to address that issue.
“We do allow for a start-up ag operation to come to the ag advisory committee, bring their business plan, show their land holdings and checking account and we will grant them a farm stand operator’s permit so they can sell,” he said.
Michael Harkin has just begun a small farm and he said he’s having trouble getting a farm stand permit from the town.
“I don’t have a $50,000 threshold but I’m still plowing, planting and doing everything that would constitute a farm,” he said. “Is bona fide a monetary figure?”
“There needs to be a point where you’re not allowed to have a stand until you produce more crops,” said Mr. Russell. “You can’t have people growing and building farm stands everywhere… there needs to be a threshold.”
Karen Rivara, an aquaculturist who serves as president of the Long Island Farm Bureau and is also on the town’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, said the committee has been working on the definitions for about five years, and even she is confused about the newly added language.
“It’s common practice for a farmer to sell part of their product through another farmer’s farm stand,” she said. “With aquaculture, we cant set up a farm stand on our farm without people drowning getting to it.”
Mr. Russell pointed out that the 60 percent rule would still allow 40 percent of the product to be from other farms.
“We need to make a commitment to grow products. I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” he said. “You can have a winery, but you’ve gotta grow the grapes. I don’t think the incidental inclusion of other producers is the problem.”
Mr. Russell added that the current code is silent on the on-site processing of agricultural products, which he said the town needs to address.
Adam Suprenant of Coffee Pot Cellars asked why the town chose to roll out the definitions portion of the chapter before the portion about uses.
“The purpose of definitions is that we’re all speaking the same language,” said Mr. Russell. “It’s going to take time and involve substantial changes to the code… We can’t discuss uses until we agree on definitions.”
The board voted unanimously on April 25 to adopt the changes, but many of the farmers who’d been to the April 11 public hearing were not in attendance.
“This has been a very long collaborative process to better ID what is agriculture in the Town of Southold, not to invent new agriculture, but just what is there today, ” said Mr. Baiz as he urged the adoption at the April 25 meeting.
Councilman Jim Dinizio said his “personal view is the more words we have, the more can be misunderstood by people,” but he “trust[s] that committee, which worked extremely hard on this.”
Mr. Russell said he wished more people had come to the April 25 meeting.
“I’m disappointed that many people who were here two weeks ago aren’t here tonight,” he said. “There didn’t seem to be a clear consensus on the legislation proposed…. We could have had a more meaningful discuss if people showed up.”
“I’ll vote to adopt them,” he said of the definitions, “but I really think we need to sit down and add a whole bunch more.”