Guest Column: The unfinished business at Edwards Farm

Unless you’re looking for it, the Edwards Farm in Orient can easily escape your notice.

You come upon it on the south side of Main Road just west of Latham Sand & Gravel and less than a mile before you reach the entrance to the Orient Point ferry. The Edwards name is nowhere to be found on a small beige sign with red lettering that identifies the property only as a “Peconic Land Trust Preserve.”

No matter. It’s a splendid site for both farming and passive open-space use for the whole community. (Think hiking and bird walks.)

When I cycled out there in early May, the slanting sunlight of early evening was bathing the freshly tilled soil, casting a warm glow of the kind that might have inspired a Cézanne landscape painting.

This, I thought, was Orient the way Orient should be — peaceful, bucolic and beautiful.

The scene might have looked far different had it not been for the civic-mindedness of the Edwards family, whose ancestors began farming there in the 1800s.

Determined to protect their 20-acre farm from development, Elbert Edwards (now deceased) and his sister, Harriet Edwards, worked with the Peconic Land Trust and Southold Town to arrange an installment sale of their land to the trust in 2015. But unfinished business remains.

“The preservation work is done,” Tim Caufield, a senior adviser to the land trust, told me. “There won’t be any houses on it, that’s for sure. The real question is how the land will be used.”

How it will be used depends on how much money the community — as in you and me — can raise.

Under the optimal scenario, the property would remain in the land trust’s hands, becoming an “incubator” for farmers of the future — that is, nurturing aspiring farmers who lack the expertise and capital to run their own shows. Once they had found their footing at Edwards, the trust would help them buy protected farmland elsewhere in town.

This is a well-tested concept for the trust; it already has two successful incubator programs — at its Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett and at its agricultural center in Southold.

Such programs are essential if farming — and especially food production — is to survive on the East End. In Orient alone, according to Mr. Caufield, the number of farmers has shrunk from around two dozen in the 1950s to a mere handful today.

More is at stake than farming, however. Edwards stretches all the way from Main Road to the wetlands beside Little Bay, which are habitats for shorebirds. So the land trust is creating a trail to the shoreline for hiking and guided bird walks. (So many people signed up for the inaugural bird walk, on June 17, that the trust plans another for June 24.)

The good news is that the town’s purchase of the development rights for Edwards enabled the land trust to repay almost two-thirds of the farm’s $1.1 million cost. With additional contributions from public-spirited residents — including one spectacular gift of $50,000 — the trust was able to make the first three of its four payments to the Edwards family.

The not-so-good news is that fewer public-spirited residents than anticipated have stepped forward to help the land trust to pay the final installment, due in January. The trust is approximately $270,000 short.

Unless private individuals and, possibly, foundations can raise that sum — which sounds like a heavy lift until I recall the ever-swelling number of high-priced German motorcars purring past our house in Orient — the trust will have to borrow to make the payment. Horrors!

Okay, it’s not the end of the world if the land trust ends up having to borrow money.

But to repay it, the trust likely would have to abandon its cherished incubator concept and, instead, sell Edwards to a farmer. The trust would try to include a covenant in the sales agreement preventing the farmer from reselling the property to someone who would take it out of food production.

“While that’s a good outcome,” said land trust president John v.H. Halsey, “the more opportunities we have to help new farmers get their feet on the ground as part of our incubator program, the better.”

Selling Edwards in the near future would also foreclose the opportunity for the trust to eventually combine that farm with another one of more than 17 acres immediately to the east.

“If we can repay the money for Edwards,” said Mr Halsey, “we can acquire that.”

Moreover, selling Edwards could also jeopardize the future of that trail to Little Bay, since the buyer might not want the public on his or her property.

So if we want to tap the full potential of this dual-purpose beauty spot, let’s rise to the occasion and open our wallets for it.

Orient resident John Henry is a member of the Peconic Land Trust.