Farmers, shocked that proposed legislation requiring the planting of a cover crop on agricultural fields includes jail time as a potential punishment for failing to do so, pushed back at a public hearing during the East Hampton Town Board’s meeting last Thursday.
The hearing followed conditions experienced in Amagansett last winter, during which fine dust blowing off a dry field north of the hamlet’s Main Street blanketed the commercial core and made its way indoors, sickening employees of Main Street businesses, temporarily closing one of them, and keeping schoolchildren indoors during recess.
The problem was blamed on the lack of a cover crop. That lack, in turn, was blamed on climate change: Heavier rainfall in the Northeast left wet soil conditions, hindered last fall’s harvest, and threw off farmers’ schedules, disrupting the establishment of cover crops.
While farmers told the board that planting a cover crop is in everyone’s interest, including their own, they said the proposed legislation goes too far by criminalizing them for events beyond their control.
Alex Balsam of Balsam Farms, who is chairman of the town’s agricultural advisory committee, told the board that in its meetings, the committee “never saw a proposed penalty provision. To the contrary, it was specifically noted by the committee that the proposed language was not punitive. Our committee of farmers agreed to the non-punitive version of the legislation.”
The proposed law would criminalize a farmer if weather conditions interfered with planting a cover crop after the fall harvest, Mr. Balsam said, or if geese consumed that budding crop, as farmers say happened last year. “Even on a spring day, when there’s dust blowing from the tillage activities,” a farmer could be fined, he said, according to the proposed legislation. “Long after you’re gone from Town Hall, we’re going to be left with this law . . . that criminalizes the farmers.”
Farmers have experienced extreme weather conditions for the last few years, said Peter Dankowski, who leases the farmland north of Main Street in Amagansett. “To be a farmer, you have to have your heart in it all the way, believe me,” he said. “All the farmers have good intentions; we have had weather challenges.” Harvesting was prevented during the last week of September, he said, and until Nov. 9 bad weather meant farmers had just 10 days in the field. “We try to do the best we can,” he said. “I think this law is totally ridiculous. If a man tells me he’s going to take me to jail, it’s not going to be an easy task.”
How, asked Bill Babinski, did the board conclude that “putting a farmer in jail is helping the problem? What other industry at the mercy of Mother Nature is threatened with jail by the town board?” And, he wondered, “Who are the dust police going to be?”
Rob Carpenter of the Long Island Farm Bureau said that farmers have taken pride in stewardship of their farmland for centuries, and that planting cover crops has historically been practiced both to prevent dust storms and to sequester nitrogen in the soil for planting seasons to come. However, he said, real-world experience demonstrates “times when circumstances arise beyond the control of farmers,” be they weather patterns or other events. “A flock of geese can consume a cover crop in a day,” he said, asking that the proposed legislation be revised to ensure that farmers making good-faith efforts to plant cover crops are not “punished for events beyond their control.”
But some residents, while agreeing that the potential punishment was extreme, reminded the board of the severity of conditions in Amagansett last winter. Michael Cinque, who owns Amagansett Wine and Spirits on Main Street, said that a condenser for an air-conditioning unit was destroyed, filters in his building damaged, and that he must regularly deal with detritus from agricultural fields.
To combat the dust bowl conditions last winter, the board, after consulting with farmers and county officials, enacted a mitigation plan that included placement of straw atop the barren fields and installation of snow fencing to help keep it in place. The action largely eliminated the swirling particulates that many Amagansett residents said constituted a health emergency.
Dan Mongan, an Amagansett resident who told the board in January that the conditions constituted a “present and immediate emergency,” repeated to the board last Thursday that “one thing should be on everyone’s mind: That dust situation was severe and persistent for well over 30 days.” He felt that “the community would accept the legislation without the risk of jail time for anybody.” He would be reassured, he said, if there were a fixed date by which a cover crop would be planted. “It is most definitely not out of our control,” he said.
Councilman Jeff Bragman reminded his colleagues of the severity of the conditions in Amagansett last winter, with several business owners, and officials of the hamlet’s school and library, complaining of damage, disruption, and impacts to health. “It’s not a trivial problem, and it is something we can fix,” he said. But he noted “a real willingness among the farming community to try to work out some solution to the problem.”
Mr. Bragman said he is not in favor of jail time as a punishment. “These penalties were tacked on as standard penalties,” he said, acknowledging that they are “extreme and unwarranted.” But the Town of Southampton has long required the planting of cover crops by a fixed date, he said, and, if necessary, farmers should take measures to prevent dust-storm conditions by leaving a portion of their crop in the ground or applying hay, straw, or a tackifier, a chemical adhesive used to keep soil, mulch, or seeds in place in wind or other storm conditions. “There are other advanced efforts to till the soil in a manner that cuts the wind’s ability to loosen soil from the ground and get airborne,” he said.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Mr. Bragman said. “Blaming global warming is not an option. But this should not happen again.” The substance of the proposed legislation is good, he said. “The penalty section should be revised, but is good and helpful.” The town “should be able to send out a building inspector to say “We’ve got a law, it’s on the books, there are things you can do, let’s get it done. It’s important we have some teeth in this law and ability to act quickly.”
Councilman David Lys agreed that the penalty component of the proposed legislation had not been presented to the agricultural advisory committee. It will meet next week, he said, and “we’ll bring it back” to an upcoming town board work session.