Where’s the next generation of North Fork farmers?


The idea of buying a farm on the North Fork may seem like a joke to would-be farmers who don’t already own land here, but Southold Town’s agricultural advisory committee is urging the town to do more to promote creative ideas to help foster a new generation of farmers.

The price of land here easily tops $100,000 an acre, making it nearly impossible for farmers who don’t already own land to make a profit when they figure in the cost of a mortgage, says the committee’s chairman, Chris Baiz, who helped draft a report in June outlining what the town can do to encourage farmers.

Those proposals include allowing greater lot coverage for greenhouses, allowing more alternative energy production on farmland, allowing aquaculturists to open farmstands and allowing multiple uses on parcels that are next door to farm fields, so that, say, a bed and breakfast, a farmstand and a winery could all operate on one parcel adjacent to farm fields.

The Town Board plans to convene a meeting soon to discuss the proposals with the agricultural advisory committee and the public.

“These are good, valid discussions,” said Supervisor Scott Russell. “The shape and nature of how we’re going to change the code has to be part of vigorous community discussions.”

Mr. Russell said some of the committee’s suggestions, such as getting zoning code and recent farm stand code in sync, are simply housekeeping measures that should be enacted so that none of the town’s laws contradict each other.

He said other proposals, such as multiple uses adjacent to farm fields, can already be accomplished by applicants who receive variances from the town’s Zoning Board.

“It’s not like it’s been a stumbling block” in the past, Mr. Russell said.

Mr. Baiz said his group is in the process of prioritizing its suggestions, in the hope they will be included in the agriculture chapter of the town’s comprehensive plan, which is due to be discussed next spring.

One of the issues he hopes to hash out before then is the committee’s proposal to allow up to 60 percent lot coverage for permanent greenhouses. The town code currently allows just 20 percent.

“There aren’t more than 22 acres total of land under glass in the entire town,” Mr. Baiz said. “There’s one greenhouse operator who, on one acre, grows specialty crops and has substantial gross receipts. But when you grow 1,000 acres of that, it’s no longer a specialty crop and everyone’s back under water. This is where creativity and understanding of agriculture comes in. If 150 farmers had 150 specialty crops and they were all different, and all went to different markets, then there might be enough cash flow from those 150 specialty growers.”

Mr. Baiz said a Cornell University agricultural economics professor recently calculated that farmers cannot turn a profit on land that costs more than $20,000 per acre.

“Young people today are just not going to want to get into farming,” he said. “It’s great if you have land your family owns and you want to grow 30 acres of potatoes, then you can put some pocket change in your pocket. But when you have to pay taxes, buy the land and hold a mortgage, that cost has to come out of agriculture on the land.

“If we can put the right kind of agriculture on the land, we can deal with the land values,” Mr. Baiz said. “But it’s going to take a lot of understanding and cooperation.”

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