Southold shellfish farmers could soon be offering clams on the half shell for sale at Norh Fork farm stands.
At Tuesday's Southold town board work session, Chris Baiz, Doug Cooper and Karen Rivera of the town's agricultural advisory committee discussed proposed changes to the town code as it relates to agriculture.
The goal, Baiz said, is to find ways to keep the agricultural industry thriving on the North Fork despite the fact that the area has the second highest price per acre for farmland in the United States, except for Hawaii.
And, he added, the face of farming has changed. "There's a new, younger population of farmers," he said. "When asked last spring how many wanted to develop hops fields and microbreweries, 50 of the 72 raised their hands. We've got a lot of challenges here."
One proposed change to the code included criteria establishing a "credible" shellfish farmer, Baiz said, that would allow those involved in aquacultural farming to engage in "on farm processing," operate farm stands, and raise effective, per-acre revenue in Southold Town.
Baiz said Southold farmland is 20 times more expensive than elsewhere in the United States. "In order to make things work, we really need to get a higher revenue per acre, which can be justified by on-farm processing."
Whether farmers are growing "potatoes or wine grapes," they need to be bringing in more than the current, and "nominal" $4000 per acre, Baiz said. "We need help if we want to keep farming as a prime source of income in Southold Town."
Baiz presented draft legislation for consideration to the board that offered a definition of a shellfish farmer.
Currently, Rivera said, there are approximately 20 or so active shellfish farmers in Southold Town.
In addition, she said, there are approximately 3100 acres of inactive underwater farms in the Peconic Estuary from Flanders to Gardiner's Bay.
Baiz said the aquaculture industry is "growing," with Suffolk County's aquaculture lease program and New York State loosening regulations to allow the sale of farmed bay scallops at the end of the season; the seeds have been purchased in factories and the scallops grown in controlled conditions on farmers' underwater flats.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the county's aquaculture program is up for renewal. "As well intentioned as it is, it has no oversight," he said. Russell has asked Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski to help facilitate a meeting of representatives to be held in Southold.
The ag advisory committee, Rivera said, was working to "tweak" the language in the town code so that shellfish farmers within town with underwater land assignments in the Peconic Estuary and Long Island Sound, as well as Fishers Island, might have farm stands in Southold.
The proposed draft legislation determines the requirements a shellfish operator must meet in order to operate a farm stand, iincluding access to underwater land and obtaining all permits to allow for on-premises consumption, Baiz said.
"Are we looking to create farmstands -- or oyster bars?" Russell asked, when presented with the concept of on-premises consumption.
Rivera said shellfish farmers have been partnering with farmstands to sell oysters under the current town code, but the new legislation would allow those in the aquaculture industry to sell their wares at a farm stand.
Russell said criteria would need to be established to prevent people from creating oyster bars.
"Quite honestly, people aren't going to be camping out at oyster bars unless they can get a pint of beer or some wine," Rivera said.
The town, Russell said, "is allowing for a more liberal farm stand code; we're trying to bolster the agricultural industry. But what happens when someone wants an oyster bar with music?"
Currently, when a farm stand is pitched in Southold, criteria needs to be followed and any food prepared on-site is "an accessory to use, not the principle use," he said. ""Will there be a safeguard here to make sure consumpton on-site is an accessory use?"
Rivera assured permits would be secured.
Russell said allowing for creation of farm stands for shellfish sales was a positive move. "You can't set up a farm stand on the bay," he said, but added that regulations must be established.
Questions were raised regarding on-site marketing.
Baiz said on-site marketing would allow for a grower or producer to sell their product at the site of origin, direct to the consumer.
The concept, Russell said, has presented challenges in the past. "We need to find a niche for oyster growers to sell, but we also need to consider on-site processing. There are a lot of issues here."
The supervisor said the issues regarding on-site processing would need to be discussed at a code committee meeting.
Baiz said the proposed changes were critical. "You have an agricultural industry still managing to survive on the most expensive land in the United States," he said. "We have to find a way to make a cash flow."
Farmers, he said, have to find ways to pay the mortgage on more than just $4000 per acre per crop. "That won't pay the bills," he said. "There has to be a value-added component to boost that number -- to bring that number to $30,000 or $50,000 per acre, in order to keep agriculture in this area. We, as an industry, have a tremendous obstacle to overcome. We want to make it work and keep one third of land in Southold open for agriculture. We can do it, but we need everyone's support."
The board agreed to send the draft for code committee review and discuss at a later meeting.