The Farmer's Friend

When asked to explain his family’s connection to the East End, John smiles and says simply: “Well, I’m a Halsey.” He chuckles. “We’re like rabbits out here. I’m the twelfth generation.” Indeed, if the many roads, businesses, and plaques scattered from Southampton to Montauk bearing the name haven’t tipped you off, yes, they are one of the largest and oldest families on the South Fork. John spent his childhood summers in Southampton building forts and exploring the thousands of acres of rye that once stretched between the highway and the ocean. He claims his first lessons in self-reliance and land stewardship came from helping out on his neighbors’ potato fields as a teenager.

John describes these years before the development boom the way many locals of his generation do, with the wistful tone of an expat describing a homeland to which they can never return.

And it’s true that, in some ways, the Southampton of John’s childhood was a different world. Driving down Wickapogue Road in his company, it is difficult for a young reporter to imagine how different the landscape was then, how flat, how broad the view.

After high school—where, John says, “there were more Halseys in my graduating class than Smiths. I imagine this is the only place in the world where that’s the case”—he went on to study at Dartmouth and spend his postgrad years working for different N.G.O.s, from Sweden to San Francisco. Fast forward ten years or so. It’s the summer of 1980. Gas costs $1.22 a gallon, the season’s muskmelons are ready for harvest, and John Halsey returns to the house on Wickapogue Road to find a For Sale sign on the tenth-generation farm next door. “I knew the family extremely well. I grew up playing in their barn.” The parents had died, and there was a $2.2 million inheritance tax on the property. The younger generation was forced to sell the farm just to pay the taxes on it. And their story wasn’t unique.

Up until the 1970s, families had been able to pass their farms down generation to generation without much of a problem. But, with the explosion of development and the spike of property values that took off in the late ’70s, that had become harder and harder. “That was sort of a seminal event for me,” John says. “As I was getting older, the pull to come back to the East End was getting stronger, and when I saw all these farms turning over, I saw a way that I could be of help to my hometown. It gave me a purpose.” John decided to move home and start an organization to help protect farmers. A couple of years later, in 1983—35 years ago this summer—the Peconic Land Trust was formally corporated. “At the time, all we had was a $5,000 start-up grant and a piece of paper saying we were official. We were starting from scratch.” There was a psychological hurdle to overcome, too.

As he began to work more closely with farmers, John found that many of them were wary of or simply uninterested in his help. “When I suggested they look into federal assistance; the response was simple: We don’t trust the government.”

He was running into a time-honored culture of self-reliance based not insignificantly on suspicion of the government, as well as plain old-fashioned American individualism. The farmers were, understandably, skeptical about relying on government agencies and third-party organizations; many family farms had survived off nothing but their own elbow grease and ingenuity for more than a hundred years, and they weren’t eager to change. However, eventually, they recognized that Halsey offered something slightly different. John began setting up meetings with farmers. “We always start with the needs, goals, and circumstances of the owners themselves, and then work out a strategy from there.”

Slowly at first, the trust began to grow. “This is where my background was helpful. These are my people, and I understand them. I just had to show them that I was only here to help, I had no agenda of my own.” He worked with farmers to put together plans that would do two things: Keep land preserved from development and make sure it remained available to farmers at affordable costs. Much of the trust’s work was bureaucratic, having to do with technical aspects of land management, working with codes and regulations to find the most sustainable way to maintain ownership. Sometimes it makes sense for farmers to seek out agricultural easements from a township or the county, or to sell the development rights on portions of their land. Selling development rights means that, while the land still belongs to the owner, it can no longer be zoned for residential use and is thus taxed at a much lower rate. Preserving agricultural land from development is in the interest of the town, as well: People continue to come here—day trippers or summer-home builders—because they want a “country” ambiance.

Over time, John built a reputation and earned the faith of the community. “Some of the very landowners who had been our biggest skeptics at the beginning joined the board once they saw what we were really about.” The trust started taking on larger and larger projects, beginning with Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett and eventually working with farmers across Suffolk County. Today, some of its success stories include Amber Waves in Amagansett, the Babinski Farm in Water Mill, Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, and Pike’s Farm Stand of Sagaponack, to name a few. With this, John has been able to fulfill the trust’s larger mission of preserving the beauty, character, and ecological integrity of Long Island’s natural resources.

And they’ve done an incredibly good job. Since 1983, the Peconic Land Trust has preserved more than 12,000 acres of farmland, woodland, and wetland across Long Island, more than any other private conservation organization, and has raised millions for land protection projects. Through their stewardship initiatives, they promote sustainable agricultural practices that help maintain the land’s rich biodiversity.

John muses and reflects back on the early days of the organization. “Part of me feels like I was destined to come back,” he says. There it is again, that wistful tone. But you can’t really blame him. In many ways, the town that John Halsey grew up in, the one his family helped to build, no longer exists. But his work has helped to ensure that further change is, if not slower, at least more considerate. So thanks, John. We’re glad you came home, too.

Nina Channing

Our associate editor at EAST, Nina has written this year about yoga studios, Grey Gardens, and Trump helicopters. Born and raised in Bridgehampton, she is a high-school dropout, a Wesleyan graduate, and now an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. When she’s not working, she can almost always be found with a book and a stack of blueberry pancakes in the back booth at Candy Kitchen.