On the East End, agriculture has always been inextricably linked to the local culture. From the early Native American inhabitants thousands of years ago to the first European settlers in the 1600s, the fertile ground of the South Shore has sustained generations of life.
For the scores of tourists who started to summer in the area beginning in the 1800s, the endless tracts of farmland were something of aesthetic value. Perhaps these bucolic vistas illustrated an idealized version of a simple life away from the bustle and stress of an urban existence. Soon, parcel by parcel, lot by lot, open space was converted into summer estates. Hedges upon hedges shielded tony mansions from public view, and views of wide open spaces became fewer and farther between.
Although local municipalities and conservationist organizations have made in-roads in preserving thousands of acres of open space and land used for agriculture, we must always be mindful of the balance between development and protecting our natural landscape and rural culture. We aren’t demonizing all construction in our area, for these business ventures create jobs and pump money into the East End economy. However, the local character of the East End with its fields and pristine beaches is what attracts tourists and second homeowners to the Hamptons and is the centerpiece of our long term economic growth. The great variety of crops that are grown on these farms, too, are now far more likely to stay in our area than they were a generation or two ago.
We are afraid that in the midst of the financial turmoil facing both Southampton and East Hampton towns, protecting land and farms for future generations will be put on the back burner, leaving these parcels vulnerable to purchase from investors able to wait out the current economic storm.
Partnerships between the state, county and/or towns should be formed to purchase properties or development rights on farmland with futures that aren’t yet secure as a way to protect the area without one municipality having to foot the whole bill. Although money is tight across the board, it doesn’t mean we can’t preserve open space and farms. In fact, we have to.
So eat local — our future depends on it.