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Farming For the Future

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Since the East End was first settled by Europeans, John Halsey’s family has been tilling the local land. An 11th generation farmer, Halsey started his own venture, the Milk Pail, in Water Mill in 1969 and it continues to operate today. For Halsey, his willingness to adapt to the agricultural market and measured estate planning has lead to his commercial success and the assurance that future generations of Halseys will be able to take over the farm.

Above: A view of the Milk Pail fields.

When Halsey was growing up, the South Fork was still a rural locale, populated by more large-scale potato farms and modest shingled homes than mansions with manicured lawns and hedges.

But as local land prices skyrocketed and competition with other agricultural producers increased, local farmers had to focus on diversifying their crops, catering their produce to a local — instead of a national — market, and using several legal planning tools to make sure their heirs will be able to inherit the land without paying an exorbitant estate tax. Organizations like the Peconic Land Trust and Southampton Town’s Community Preservation Fund (CPF) are vital in keeping these farms operational for generations to come and protecting this facet of the local character.

In order to convey the impacts of the town’s agricultural conservation efforts, last Wednesday, Southampton Town council members and town supervisor Linda Kabot sponsored a tour of several local farms along with Mary Wilson, the town’s CPF manager, and John van Heusen Halsey, President of the Peconic Land Trust.

“It is very different for someone to see this up close rather than from an office window,” said John Halsey at his Milk Pail fields, which was the first stop for the group. “I hope from this small amount of time you have a sense of what it takes to grow high quality food in the Hamptons.”

From Potatoes to Apples and Cheese: The Changing Long Island farm

“The history of Long Island farming is a history of change,” said Halsey in an interview over the phone with the sound of a tractor rumbling in the background. For decades, Halseys were self-subsistence farmers, but in the 1800s the arrival of the railroad brought a shift towards potato production, a process which demands large tracts of land. Citing an inability to compete with potato farmers in Idaho and Canada, Halsey’s family soon abandoned the crop.

Art Ludlow’s family traditionally grew potatoes, but when he and his brother took over operations, Ludlow created Mecox Bay Diary and his brother opted to start a farm stand. Ludlow crafts five types of artisanal cheeses and instead of competing with national producers, he sells almost 80 percent of his product at local stores and farmers markets within a 20-mile radius of his Bridgehampton home.

“For a commercial potato crop you need the highest yield at the lowest cost for the market,” explained Ludlow. “Now, my yield is nowhere near as important as the milk quality … and there is no competition with the rest of the country.”

Before starting the Milk Pail, Halsey tried his hand in dairy production for several years, but soon discovered a knack for apples, after Halsey’s in-laws gave him a few apples from their home in Vermont. Over the years, the business has expanded to include peaches, blueberries, pumpkins, cherries, flowers and an on-site farm stand, but with 10,000 bushels gathered every year, apples are still the mainstay at the Milk Pail.

For Halsey, growing fruit was new territory. He is a self-taught apple farmer, but has linked up with the Cornell University Cooperative Extension to learn about pest and disease control and growing different varieties of apples. After he has yielded a crop of the fruit, he sends a sample back to the cooperative to be tested. He sells apples and cider to both the Ross School and the Southampton Public School.

Although maintaining the 60-acre farm is an arduous and expensive process — the up-keep of one long row is around $10,000 — Halsey and his family wouldn’t trade-in their chosen profession.

“You have to love it,” said flower farmer Amy Halsey, John’s daughter, of farming. “It is a seven-days-a-week job. You don’t get the summer or the weekends off. You have to have a passion for it.”

Passing Down the Farm

In the early 1980s, John van Heusen Halsey was visiting his family in Southampton during a college break when he noticed a for sale sign in front of the adjacent property, the Downs Farm. Halsey learned from his father the Downs family had been hit with a steep estate tax in the millions after a death in the family. The neighbors, contends Halsey, like so many local farmers were “land rich and cash poor.”

“They had no option but to sell,” remarked Halsey.

The Downs family ended up in a contract of sale where the purchase of the property was contingent upon subdivision approval. It took five years for the purchaser to receive site plan approval and by that point the Downs family had to pay a 47 percent penalty on the estate tax. The money they received from the sale was barely enough to cover these debts.

Before the 1970s, when real estate prices started to increase on the East End, estate taxes weren’t an issue for local farmers, as the value of their land never broke the threshold of the tax. As countless farmers have seen others lose their family land in similar scenarios, some have taken heed and planned their estates.

Halsey explains that farmers now have many legal tools at their disposal to pass on the farm without creating a financial burden for the next generation. Firstly, they can sell development rights on the property to the town or donate the rights to an organization like the Peconic Land Trust. This process allows them to continue farming, but also devalues their land because it can’t be built upon. Gifts of land can be given while relatives are alive or at their death. Other families set up limited liability companies or family partnerships, which put inherent restrictions on the development of the land, thus devaluing it. Halsey contends, however, that families often use a variety of ways to protect their land.

Farming remains an important piece of East End culture, but John van Heusen Halsey argues that the town and local organizations must continue to help preserve and continue this heritage.

“In this day and age, it is so critical as a country that we don’t lose our ability to grow food,” noted Halsey. “Especially around major metro areas, we shouldn’t forget the importance of regional agriculture and food.”