Southold looks to help agriculture industry in trend toward processing

Under the current code, Southold Town farmers can mostly just sell their crops as-is to retail or wholesale customers. (Credit: Vera Chinese)
Under the current code, Southold Town farmers can mostly just sell their crops as-is to retail or wholesale customers. (Credit: Vera Chinese)

Doug Cooper has no interest in bottling salsa at Cooper Farms, his Mattituck business.

“At my age, I’m not going to get into something like that,” he said.

But the prospect of a Cooper’s North Fork Salsa, or Cooper’s New York City Salsa — pick a name — is one that’s being used by some in local agriculture as the perfect example of a product that could fetch more profits than shipping crates of tomatoes through middlemen in New York and elsewhere. 

“We’re trying to think ahead for farming in the next 50 years, 100 years, 200 years,” said Mr. Cooper, who’s also a member of Southold Town’s agricultural advisory committee. “I hope the farm will be in business for a long time in the future. And I want to encourage that.”

Under current code, Southold Town farmers aren’t allowed to do much of anything with their crops other than sell them as-is to retail or wholesale customers. They can ship produce off-site for processing. But once the product gets returned to the farm — in the form of salsa, jelly, or whatever else — it’s then considered an off-farm product and its sale is restricted at the farm stand.

Town officials are now looking to “modernize” the code to allow for on-farm processing — with the aim of keeping farming profitable in Southold.

“The ag committee has been concerned with this for quite awhile,” said Southold Councilman Bill Ruland, the Town Board’s liaison to the committee. “And it’s gotten to the point where this needs to be addressed because agriculture is changing, and the need is for value-added products and for the farmer to market his own product.”

Agricultural committee members frequently point to Martin Sidor Farms in Mattituck, and how its owners, Martin and Carol, were forced to establish their North Fork Potato Chips plant away from their family farm due to town code. Since bagging their first chips in 2004, the snacks have received considerable media attention from celebrity chefs like Rachael Ray.

Mr. Sidor said there’s no going back now that his business is up-and-running, but he will likely “find out what he can do” on his farm under the new code changes.

“I’ve always felt bad for [Mr. Sidor] because that was an extra headache and expenses for him,” said Karen Rivara, a shellfish farmer and board president at the Long Island Farm Bureau. “And even though he’s adapted to it, that doesn’t mean the code should remain so restrictive. And in the future, if he wants to branch out, he should be able to do so on his farm.

“They’re his potatoes, gosh darn it.”

For the Farm Bureau’s part, Ms. Rivara said the group supports changing Southold Town code.

“We support on-farm processing of products that people have produced on their farms,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense for people to lease another building or somehow do it off-farm.”

She also acknowledged that there may be concerns in the community.

“I know some people will extrapolate the possibilities of what that means and be panicky as to what’s going to be next door to their house,” she said, “but if we‘re going to have the benefits of agriculture here in Southold, people need to run their business so they’re profitable. Everything is extremely expensive here on Long Island and we’re competing against other places … like Canada, where food is produced cheaply.”

At a recent code committee meeting, members raised concerns over a few pages of draft changes to the code.

The town’s chief building inspector, Michael Verity, said that under those proposed changes he might find himself having to approve potentially massive structures such as a Lays potato chip factory — a hypothetical example brought up earlier in the meeting.

“I think it’s a little too broad,” Mr. Verity said. “The entire thing.”

The proposed changes were sent back to the town attorney’s office for possible revisions.

“It’s rare you get it completely right on the first try,” Mr. Ruland said this week. “But what most people’s biggest fears are is that someone might take advantage of anything that’s changed. But if there are abuses you could go back and re-amend the code.”

Any proposed code amendments approved in committee would then go to a public hearing before the Town Board votes on the changes, officials said.

Under current code, only vineyards are allowed to process their produce on-site, said Supervisor Scott Russell.

“None of the other industries can,” Mr. Russell said. “This would more or less bring the other agricultural industries up to par with the wineries. It’s important to recognize that all agriculture needs be treated similarly. It’s difficult right now to carve out that exception just for wineries. Agriculture is changing and we need to accommodate for them in the code.”

Mr. Russell said the town will look to the state Department of Agriculture & Markets to help determine what is considered a bona fide agricultural product.

While Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski of Cutchogue, himself a farmer, welcomes what he described as a needed change to town code, he also said he suspects few North Fork farmers would be in a position to take advantage of the new opportunities — at least right now.

“If you’re raising potatoes and then you go to make potato chips, that’s a separate business; there’s a lot of work involved,” Mr. Krupski said. “It’s not just a snap of a finger. But for another generation coming up, it gives them another opportunity to fit into the operation.”

Chris Baiz, who owns The Old Field Vineyards in Southold and is head of the agricultural committee, said crops are increasingly becoming smaller and more diversified. Because of this, farm products will have to be marketed more and more toward retail customers.

“Agriculture out here in the Town of Southold is always going to be a specialty industry,” Mr. Baiz said. “It’s not going to be commodity agriculture, like soy beans or wheat or corn. It has to be all directed at the ultimate consumer as the buyer, and not the middleman who’s getting $.75 of every retail dollar on a pound of potatoes.”

“Farmers need to generate enough cash flow to support the acreage they’re living on and have a life,” he continued. “Not a country club life, but one that allows them to work on the land.”

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with Paul Squire