More than 10 vocal community members stepped up to the podium at last Tuesday’s Town Board meeting to address a proposed local law amending chapter 280 of the town’s zoning code, which concerns agricultural processing.
North Fork farmers hope to see the law passed, saying that the processing of agricultural products is critical to their livelihood and success during the season.
“For this piece of legislation to be introduced at this time simply begins to level the playing field for all of our agricultural lands,” said Chris Baiz, chairman of the town’s agricultural advisory committee and co-owner of The Old Field Vineyards in Southold. “There’s already processing going on in town and it’s called our wineries.”
Mr. Baiz and other farmers present Tuesday also argued that processing capabilities should not be limited to wine grapes.
“They operate approximately 3,000 acres of farmland in the town,” he said of wineries. “We’re just trying to bring 7,000 acres of farmland into the future and let them do what the wineries have been able to do for 40 years … Whether it’s potatoes into potato chips or tomatoes into salsa,” he argued, adding that each individual operator deserves to see a future in the industry.
Karen Rivara, a 35-year shellfish farmer in Southold and a member of the town’s agricultural advisory committee, said this legislation would encourage positive environmental impacts, as opposed to the negative ones suggested in a recent Suffolk Times opinion piece, “Is processing on farms good for Southold?” by Glynis Berry of Orient, executive director of Peconic Green Growth.
“I feel strongly that keeping agriculture vital and viable in Southold is our best way of protecting not only our groundwater, but also our bays because I find farmers to be excellent stewards of the land,” Ms. Rivara said. “They have to, in order to keep their land productive. And they are under scrutiny and regulated extensively, so that they, in fact, do use best managing practices.”
Ms. Berry, however, said that given the town’s intensification of uses, board members should consider with caution the detriment that might be felt in the case of a poorly planned operation or unprincipled operator.
“A lack of control will encourage less scrupulous owners to maximize profit at the expense of the whole community,” she said. “There are many examples across the country, where farming and rich companies have destroyed local aquifers and created pollution that was ultimately left to the public to rectify.”
Ms. Berry argued that in an environment as vulnerable as ours, we mustn’t be unregulated — something more than one farmer took issue with.
“I think the characterization that it’s going to be the wild, wild west here and there are going to be these huge factories on our beautiful farmland chugging out pollutants with big smokestacks and that we’re going to be dumping them into the bay,” said Adam Suprenant of Southold “… I would say, it’s maybe a more of a ‘Chicken Little’ approach.”
The alternative to farming, Mr. Suprenant pointed out, is housing. He said he predicts Southold’s processing will echo that of Sang Lee Farms, currently making salad dressing and pesto out of the crops they grow, or low-scale dairy operations like Catapano Farm, which produce small amounts of cheese.
“I would very much doubt that if this legislation passes, Heinz ketchup is going to move in and grow a bunch of tomatoes and build a big factory.”
Louisa Hargrave, a founder of the North Fork wine industry who could not attend Tuesday’s public hearing, wrote a letter to the board, which was read aloud by Mark Van Bourgondien, greenhouse operator at the Long Island Farm Bureau in Peconic and a member of the agricultural advisory committee.
“We can recognize the essential nature of farming and that it involves processing as well as growing crops as part of our heritage and it also involves collaboration and good will.”
The new model for farming in Southold, Ms. Hargrave wrote, “will embrace this old model, while adapting to a high-tech world.”
Amending the town code as the resolution currently reads, would mean permitting “the accessory use of the processing of agricultural products on a parcel containing a bona fide farm operation.”
Though the board decided to close the hearing, leaving it open for two more weeks for written comment, the resolution outlines that the square footage of any agricultural building may not exceed 1.5% of the total parcel size and that at least 66% of the agricultural products being processed must be grown on-site. The resolution also specifies that buildings of less than 3,000 square feet do not need to undergo site plan review and those that are larger will be entitled to an expedited process.
Council member Bill Ruland, a lifelong farmer and member of the agricultural advisory committee, expressed support for what he called a “reasonable” piece of legislation.
“Agriculture in our town is changing,” he said. “People said our farms would never survive, yet the resiliency of the farmer superseded the challenges they were presented with.”