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Farmers could face jail time for inadequate crop covers under proposed East Hampton law

Dust blown from a nearby farm field accumulated

Dust blown from a nearby farm field accumulated along the streets in downtown Amagansett in January. Credit: Newsday/Vera Chinese

Representatives of the East Hampton Town farming community acknowledged at a recent public hearing the need for measures to prevent dust storms, but said a proposed town law carrying possible jail time for offending farmers is too harsh.

East Hampton Town has crafted legislation that would require farmers to plant and maintain a cover crop or take on other measures to protect their fields against wind erosion. The law, sponsored by Councilman Jeff Bragman, was proposed after dust from an unsecured Amagansett potato field blanketed the hamlet’s downtown in January. A cover crop was planted there but did not take due largely to a late harvest, said the farmer, Peter Dankowski.

“Doing nothing is not an option. Blaming global warming is not an option,” Bragman said during a public hearing last week on the matter. “This does not have to happen.”

Leaving a harvested crop in place, placing hay in a field or applying tackifier, which helps the dust adhere to the ground, would also be acceptable methods of erosion control, according to the legislation.

Under the law, first-time offenders would be fined $500 to $2,500 or have to serve up to six months in jail.

All who spoke during the July 18 public hearing, including town officials, said imprisonment was not an appropriate punishment for farmers. Agricultural Advisory Committee Chairman Alex Balsam said Monday he does not think the law should carry any financial penalties.

Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Rob Carpenter said the organization “strongly rejects criminal punishment for offenses related to agriculture” and noted wildlife could easily decimate a cover crop.

“I’m not sure how the board feels putting the farmers in jail would solve the problem,” farmer Billy Babinski of Wainscott said during the hearing. “What other industry that’s at the mercy of Mother Nature is threatened with jail by the town board?”

In neighboring Southampton Town, farmers are already required to plant a cover crop no more than two weeks after harvest and no later than Oct. 30, but the law does not mention penalties.

Bragman, the East Hampton Town Board’s agricultural advisory committee liaison, said he hopes to revise the law and would discuss the matter with the committee. He stressed the impact of dust storms on the community and the need to codify a solution.

Amagansett resident Dan Mongan noted that his asthmatic 16-year-old daughter endured breathing difficulties and his dog developed a cough during the January dust storm.

“I think it’s important we have some teeth in this law and some ability to act quickly,” Bragman said.

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