Executive Suite: John v.H. Halsey

John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land

John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust, at the Seven Ponds Farm in Southampton on June 20, 2014. (Credit: Gordon M. Grant)

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Farmland on Long Island's East End has become virtually unaffordable for farmers, as the cost of undevelopable land is rising to $200,000 per acre, said John v.H. Halsey, president of the Peconic Land Trust in Southampton. He's working to keep the farming industry alive by conserving the land and leasing it to farmers.

Halsey, 62, whose family lineage dates to 1640 in Southampton, was inspired to found the Land Trust in 1983, when he returned from a master's program at Berkeley to find a "for sale" sign on a neighbor's farm that had been family owned for 10 generations; the family sold the farm to pay inheritance taxes.

Due to the trust's work and other conservation efforts, 12,000 of the 34,000 acres of farmland in Suffolk County have been protected from development, said Halsey, who was honored at the 2014 NYS Land Conservation Summit for his leadership, commitment and innovation.

What's the future of farming here?

We have to work really hard to keep farming here. There are so many challenges farmers face: labor costs, equipment costs, the infrastructure that supports farms -- mechanics and seed providers . . . But here the biggest challenge is the land values and how that impacts the ability of people to pass it on from one generation to the next, and also to be able to purchase it and to get into farming.

What can farmers do who want to donate their land but also want to give their kids something to inherit?

Sometimes they are not in a position to gift and they need to realize some of the value. The best thing to do in that instance is to sell the development rights.

What's the going price of those rights, which, once sold, mean the land cannot be developed but the farmer still owns it?

They represent anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the total value.

Why are developers now purchasing farmland without development rights?

In the last five to 10 years, people are willing to spend a lot of money for land that can't be developed; [they] bundle it with a developable property. Spec homes are bundled with protected farmland, so you're not just selling the house, you're selling the house plus additional acreage. From a marketing standpoint you can own 20 acres in Southampton or East Hampton.

What's the real issue?

The restrictions on the property [do not make it an] affirmative requirement to farm. The assumption was made -- well, who would want this land other than a farmer? So we're grappling with . . . an unanticipated consequence.

Did this year's increase in the state inheritance tax exemption to $2 million help?

It helps most in areas where property values are low. On the South Fork, where 100 acres of protected farmland [land with no development rights] is worth over $10 million, the benefits are far less compelling.

How do your apprentice and land leasing programs work?

At our Quail Hill Farm out in Amagansett, we have about four to six apprentices there every year. We provide them with housing, a stipend of sorts and they get the opportunity to work with our staff out there. Some end up starting their own farms here or elsewhere, so it's been great. We also lease to new farmers on both forks to give people an opportunity to really see if this is their calling.

Tell me about your upcoming ladybug and photography programs?

The catalyst of our ladybug program was actually the discovery of a thought-to-be-extinct [9-spotted] ladybug at Quail Hill Farm. The teenage program is about inspiring kids about photography, nature and Long Island's heritage. For more information, see peconiclandtrust.org/events.

CORPORATE SNAPSHOT

NAME: John v.H. Halsey, president and founder, Peconic Land Trust in Southampton

WHAT IT DOES: Protects and maintains farmland and other resources, leases land, lobbies, produces educational and community programs

EMPLOYEES: 24 full time; 1 part time

BUDGET: About $4 million

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