When Holly and Chris Browder needed help with their irrigation system or getting their field seeded, Dan Heston was there. Mr. Heston, 45, would also roll up his sleeves and delve into the dirty job of turning compost for the Browders, who were just getting started in the poultry business.
In return, the Browders supplied him with free farm-fresh eggs — and, at times, new perspectives about farming.
Such is the type of exchange that’s been going on the last few years at the Peconic Land Trust’s Agricultural Center in Southold, where Mr. Heston — owner of Salt Air Farms in Cutchogue — serves as a mentor for people trying to break into a centuries-old industry. The program offers more affordable options for would-be farmers, where they’re not only mentored, but are able to share pricey equipment, find camaraderie and, perhaps most importantly, lease small amounts of land on which to learn their trade — often, land that has been used by farmers for generations.
“We help with anything from irrigation to field to layout to how to market their products,” Mr. Heston said. “There’s an advantage in having a few years of mentorship. Everyone thinks they know everything the first year, but the majority of questions come the second year. That’s when the growth seems to happen.
“[And] we are learning from some of these small operations that aren’t traditional,” he added, mentioning one up-and-coming farmer at the center who will be growing shiitake mushrooms on white oak logs. “They all kind of work together to complement each other’s markets, which is the whole idea.”
SEE THE MAP: How it came together
Just last month, Peconic Land Trust acquired the last of 11 parcels that now make up its 98-acre agricultural center. The purchases were made possible through several generous donations from husband-and-wife team Tom and Anne Hubbard, Southold Town’s Community Preservation Fund and former farmers who were willing to sell the development rights to their land in order to keep it in agriculture in perpetuity.
Founded in 1983, the land trust’s primary goal was to keep land in farming. The current program developed some 10 years later, after Peconic Land Trust altered its original mission to focus on keeping people in farming as well. The ag center is at the heart of that renewed effort.
“Every one of [the novice farmers] is looking for the same thing,” said Tim Caufield, vice president of the land trust, which operates on both the North and South forks. “They’re interested in farming but don’t have enough to buy a farm.” At the ag center, he said, farmers “can develop a real business plan.”