RIVERHEAD, N.Y. -- One of the constants of life on Long Island for the last half-century has been the steady swallowing up of farmland.
Suburban development, roaring east from New York City, changed the quality of the air and water, overwhelmed old patterns of transportation and transformed the connections between people and the land. But now, here on the island's east end, there is a plot twist. To Ed Harbes, it is called opportunity.
Harbes, a fifth-generation Long Island farmer, is doing quite well and wants to expand his acreage. He is not alone. Agriculture, in a part of the nation that might seem the least likely of breadbaskets, is hot.
"The business has grown in very healthy fashion," said Harbes, 45, who reinvented his farm in the late 1980s -- giving over the potato fields his father cultivated to sweet corn and pumpkins that he sells to weekenders and tourists from two farm stands. Chardonnay and merlot grapes for a Harbes winery were planted this spring. Three of Harbes' eight children now say they want to stay in the family business, which has taken on 10 new employees in the past few years.
Here on Long Island Sound's southeastern edge, 70 miles from Manhattan, the environmental and political implications of a strengthened farm economy are immense, conservationists, farmers and local elected officials say. The question of what land is saved, what is built upon, who profits and who loses -- a real estate equation that has been at the heart of the sound's environmental trajectory for decades, if not centuries -- are all in play here as agriculture asserts its muscle.
But the shifting debate about the land also reflects a much deeper pattern on the Sound -- how fundamentally its fate, for better and for worse, has always been in the hands of local politics and passions.
Last year, town officials drafted a long-term development plan for Riverhead that would have focused development along the Sound -- by far the most valuable land in town -- as a way of preserving farmland in the interior. It was a trade-off that many environmentalists condemned, and they threatened to push instead for a plan the farmers hated -- a revision of the zoning rules that would sharply reduce the value of any farmland sold for development.
The farmers fought back. Working through their trade group, the Long Island Farm Bureau, they forged an unlikely political alliance of agricultural interests, home builders and environmentalists, and they offered an alternative vision.
Their plan would preserve farmland values. Environmentalist support was rewarded by shifting development away from the Sound and by aiming to save more open space than the town's version would have. Builders would get a streamlined development process -- and in perhaps the most divisive element of all -- the ability to build higher density clustered homes at up to six units per acre within the town's agricultural zone -- an area that was off limits under the town plan.
Riverhead's elected town supervisor, Robert F. Kozakiewicz -- whose family's farm here is still run by his parents and a brother -- said the plan was still being debated. But he said he believes that substantial elements of the "stakeholders proposal," as the farmer-led effort is called, will probably be incorporated when the town board votes this fall.
Some critics say the farmers and their allies have hijacked Riverhead's future -- horse trading to get everything they want now, in protecting the agricultural industry, and everything they want in the future, in being able to sell out to a housing developer when times change or retirement looms.
"It's a scheme," said Richard L. Amper, the executive director of Pine Barrens Society, a conservation group based in nearby Manorville. "What they are producing is a shell game -- they're not reducing development, just moving it around."
Some farmers also oppose the plan -- especially the idea of building town houses near the farms -- and are fighting back as well.
"The whole issue here is density," said Art Binder, a horse and bison rancher who is running for a seat on the Town Board this fall. "If you want to save the farmland, then you just can't develop it at six units per acre."
Both supporters and opponents agree that farming has changed. What had been a mostly wholesale business subject to the fluctuations of national and global markets, especially when potato-growing was king, has shifted to retail, specialty foods and tourism -- or even further to what some people here call "agri-tainment." (Harbes, for example, builds mazes in his cornfields for children to wander through.) The higher profit margins of that shift are showing.
Cash receipts rise
Between 1997 and 2001, farm cash receipts here in Suffolk County rose more than 40 percent, to $5,543 an acre, according to the most recent figures from the State Department of Agriculture and Markets. That was more than 10 times the statewide average and far higher than any other county in New York.
Much of the rest of Riverhead's economy has gone along for the ride, residents say. The dozens of small wineries that have sprung up on Long Island's North Fork attract weekend tourists who like to shop at farm stands and who are at least partly drawn by the idea of farmland itself. One resident is even pushing for a rule in the master plan that would require new homes built on farmland -- especially the clustered houses -- to look like farm buildings, the better to fool the tourists.
That agricultural strength, in turn -- not to mention the tentacles it extends into other aspects of the local economy, from restaurants to gas stations -- is what gives preservationists here hope. Land on which people are making money, they say, and in which farmers see a bright future, is simply less attractive to development. Supporters of the farmer-led stakeholder plan say they hope to permanently preserve up the 12,000 acres of farm open space, compared with only 5,000 under the town's plan. About half of Long Island's total farmland of 34,000 acres is within Riverhead's borders.
"Preservation is terrific, but a strong agriculture industry is what's keeping this area rural," said Timothy Caufield, a vice president at the Peconic Land Trust, a conservation group.
Many people on both sides of the land conservation debate in Riverhead say that much of what has happened here in rethinking how and where development should occur comes down to one man, Richard Wines, 57, a soft-spoken former Wall Street investor relations consultant. Even some people who vehemently hate parts of the stakeholder proposal have kind words to say about Wines, even though he came up with many of the ideas.
Wines plays down his role. His strength, he said, is that he can talk to all the power groups. As a former businessman, he said that he understands the builders. As a small farmer, he knows that community as well. But he also donated the development rights to his farm last year to the Peconic Land Trust, which means that as long as there are lawyers to defend the claim, the 15 acres of his little spread can never be built upon. That gave him capital, he said, in talking to environmentalists.
Wines, sitting in front of his house a few feet from his potato field on a recent afternoon, said he approached the land debate here in exactly the same way he would have approached a deal-making conference on Wall Street: by making sure that everyone at the table had an economic incentive to follow through.
"A business deal is most likely to succeed if all the parties benefit," he said. "Land preservation needs to be the same way."