Prior to the overdevelopment of the East End, farms dominated the scenery on the South Fork and included dairy farms, potato fields and apple orchards.
The crops were so abundant that farmers were able to produce and sell their produce in bulk. But that slowly went away, and many farmers turned to selling their products primarily at farm stands.
In order to survive, the farmers had to change how they could make money, and, today, they continue to seek out-of-the-box solutions to survive with the constantly changing landscape.
Some farmers are now looking at incorporating food trucks as a way to bring people to farm stands, which would require a change to the Southampton Town code, because a mechanism is not in place to allow them to exist as an accessory use.
Many local business owners object to the concept, because allowing food trucks to exist at farm stands could create an uneven playing field and unnecessary competition. Others, even farmers themselves, think it could lead to unneeded regulations.
Under the proposed modifications to the rules that regulate farm stands, food trucks would be permitted to operate at pre-existing farm stands as an accessory use, and 80 percent of any food product sold there must be made up of agricultural products from the East End.
At a Town Board meeting on June 11, Southampton Assistant Town Attorney Kathryn Garvin said that only a handful of stands would be eligible. She explained that a structure must already be on the property, and the truck operator has to be able to prove that all of the products are grown locally.
“This came about as a result of not having a mechanism in the code,” Southampton Town Board member Christine Scalera said this week.
Originally, the modifications would have allowed third-party vendors from anywhere to operate the food trucks, but after listening to farmers and business owners at a public hearing on June 11, Ms. Scalera worked with Ms. Garvin to tweak the legislation so that the trucks were limited to local businesses.
“It was intended to not make it so that it would be widespread use,” Ms. Scalera said on Monday. “It is meant to address particular situations that lend themselves to the ability to have a food truck when they are on site without having it be detrimental to the surrounding area or the roadways or to disrupt parking or any community around it. I think making it a limited application … was the intention.”
Amy Halsey-Cohn, the owner of The Milk Pail in Water Mill, approached Ms. Scalera about having a food truck operated at the farm stand with the idea that it would boost and enhance their productivity and sales. She said she was looking to offer three pre-existing trucks the opportunity to operate at her stand: Aji of East Quogue, which serves Mexican cuisine; Nice Buns of Southold, which serves sliders; and Plaza Cafe of Southampton.
Having a third-party run the truck would take the burden of the additional business away from Milk Pail and placed on the food truck operator.
“Running a farm is more than just Harry Potter having a magic wand,” she said at the public hearing on June 11. “It’s too much effort for us to be putting that into place. It’s more employees, it’s more headaches for us, and we felt it was highlighting a local business.”
On Tuesday, her sister Jennifer Dupree, who co-owns Milk Pail with Ms. Halsey-Cohn, told Town Board members that her parents started the farm stand in 1969 because they could not support themselves on potatoes alone. “We’re in the same boat,” she said. The traffic along Montauk Highway, in front of her stand, backs up daily in the summer, which hurts her business.
“Do you think a customer comes in now and knows what to do with 20 pounds of apples?” she asked. “They want everything prepared. This is a way for us to keep going.”
The Milk Pail is not the only farm struggling and looking for ways to continue to make money.
David Falkowski, the owner of Open Minded Organics on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton, owns a Suffolk County Department of Health-approved kitchen on wheels that serves numerous purposes. For example, he uses it to prepare and process items like guacamole, salsa, quiches, teas, pestos and soups. He also uses the kitchen to wash greens from his farm, while also cooking beef from his father’s farm in upstate New York, and adding self-grown mushrooms into ravioli.
“The work we’re doing in connection to my farm is very different than what someone else wants to do, which is creating a parking spot for somebody relatively unconnected or related to that business, just to park,” he said. “Maybe on one end it could be considered as a food truck, because it serves ready-to-eat meals, but that is a permissible action to the Department of Health-approved kitchen. On the license, it is listed as a kitchen.”
The code modifications, Mr. Falkowski said, do not take into account things that he is already doing on his farm, which should be permissible. “There shouldn’t even be an additional permit,” he said. “There’s a difference between a farm having a mobile kitchen that does a wide range of activities, versus a farm or farm stand that just has a third party operating on their place and there’s absolutely no connection to the business.”
Mr. Falkowski also questioned whether the town would be able to enforce the rule that 80 percent of the products sold be made up of ingredients from the East End. Some parts of the year, farms may not yield too many products, which may result in the food trucks being out of compliance, he said—other parts of the year may be the opposite.
He added that maybe instead of a cumbersome regulation, the farm should just be able to demonstrate a connection in their products to the farm and its work.
The farm Mr. Falkowski works is not large at 10 acres. He started farming nearly 20 years ago, when he began growing mushrooms. But he had to change things up.
“If agriculture was that simple on the East End, I’d still be growing mushrooms, but I had to evolve my business,” he said. “I had to diversify … and, yes, there’s an extremely valid argument that this is another option that farmers need to have at their disposal. I don’t think we need some burdensome over-regulations.”
At the public hearing on June 11, Mr. Falkowski voiced his frustrations with the regulations, as did other business owners, including Jay Andreassi, owner of Sabrosa Mexican Grill in Water Mill. Even though Mr. Andreassi admitted to loving to go to farm stands, he said he was against allowing farm stands to operate food trucks. Running a restaurant is tough, he said, because he has to hire staff, pay taxes, conform to tough restrictions from the board of health and make sure the food is fresh.
Mr. Andreassi said he wishes he could buy all of his produce locally, but there are some things he cannot get. “You can’t have a taco truck parked at Milk Pail and tell me that 80 percent of the taco is coming from the East End,” he said. “We don’t need to compete with a taco truck. Most of these trucks are not from restaurants. Some of them are, but most of these trucks are just trucks. It’s hard for us to survive, having that.”
Ms. Scalera said this week that her intent was not to hurt businesses, and having listened to the business owners during the public hearing, she made a few tweaks. “We were trying to think of a way to take what they were saying and make it a positive for them and make it a win-win for everybody,” she said. “It seems to me, if we can make the food truck specific to a local business and just trade off and make them rotate so it gives everybody the ability or opportunity to do it, that sounded like a good idea to me.”
Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman did not agree, and was not sold on the concept. He said he was worried about allowing food trucks because it would open the door for anyone to come out and operate a food truck.
Mr. Schneiderman also said he wants to see the farmers succeed, but without “opening up Pandora’s box.”
Town Board member John Bouvier said he was seeing both sides of the argument and suggested the only way to know would be to give it a try. Town Board member Julie Lofstad also said she was in favor of allowing food trucks, but with regulations. “I think we need to help our farmers whenever we can,” she said.
The board did not take action on the measure, but instead left the public hearing open until Wednesday, July 9, at 1 p.m.