The culture of farming on the East End has gotten a shot in the arm in recent years from young entrepreneurs who have embraced the local food movement and begun to produce a large variety of food on small farms.
Though these farmers differ in their approach from the commodity farmers who made Long Island potatoes famous, they share their predecessors’ need for space to store their equipment and greenhouses to extend their growing season.
But the economic scale of local farming is also small, and that’s what worries a group of young farmers who recently petitioned the East Hampton Town Board to ease restrictions on small farms.
Alexander Balsam, who, in addition to being an attorney with the East Hampton firm of Dayton and Voorhees, is also a partner in Balsam Farms, which is based in Amagansett but rents 60 acres of farmland throughout the South Fork, helped to lead this charge after friends of his who are farmers had their first encounter with East Hampton’s zoning code.
Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow, who last year started Amber Waves Farm behind the Amagansett Farmer’s Market, put up a 15-by-72-foot plastic hoop house to extend their growing season early this spring.
They had initially applied to build the greenhouse late last summer, but they were having difficulty coming up with the site-plan fee, which they said was going to eat up a large percentage of their profit margin.
The Town Board in April voted to waive their application fee, and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley pledged to re-examine the town code to try to make it easier for farmers. Ms. Baldwin and Ms. Merrow are awaiting a public hearing on their greenhouse before the East Hampton Town Planning Board on Wednesday, June 16.
Technically, said Mr. Balsam, farmers do not have to abide by the local zoning code, because the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets allows farmers much greater leeway than other users of land. But he said farmers have to claim what they call their “ag and markets rights” and prepare for a potential battle with the town.
Farming is, after all, a land-intensive activity with famously low profit margins, and even with the ballooning real estate values on the South Fork, an acre of farmland here can be rented for as little as $150 per year. But before the town’s Planning Board, farmers face the same hurdles as developers.
“Two thousand square feet of greenhouse or of condos is the same” before the Planning Board, said Ms. Merrow. She and other farmers would like to see what she calls “site-plan lite” for farmers, which would enable the town to allow them, as of right, what the state already allows them.
Surveys, for instance, can become quite costly when they must be done for the vast, often monotonous landscape of farming acreage, while site-plan review and an attendant survey must be conducted for buildings as small as 200 square feet, and even for temporary buildings such as greenhouses that have no floor.
“It’s an integral part of having a farm,” said Ms. Baldwin of the greenhouse, from which tomatoes and basil had just been removed to harden off outside. “We have children here on field trips. It’s an educational tool all year-round.”
The town code also requires that farm stands can only be 200 square feet and that they must be open-sided. Mr. Balsam said that he doubted that law had ever been enforced.
Screening of buildings with trees is also required as part of the site-plan process, which farmers say is contrary to the goal of a farm: to expose smaller plants to sunlight.
“The next generation of agriculture is a lot different than what existed in the past” said Mr. Balsam. “There’s not much land or housing for labor. The smaller farms are growing for the local market. There are more young farmers in East Hampton than people are aware of.”
Mr. Balsam said that the buildings on older, large farms such as the ones owned by Peter Dankowski and the Foster family in Sagaponack, usually predate zoning, though the changes that he recommends would also be a boon for large-scale farmers.
“The Town Board is pretty open to looking at ways to make the process easier,” said Councilwoman Quigley recently, after meeting with Mr. Balsam and members of the town’s legal staff to determine if the changes can be made.
“I think these proposals are reasonable,” she added. “Farms are a piece of history we should retain. We want to encourage farmers to be out here.”