Long Island farmers wary of state regulations on water quality

03/26/2014 8:00 AM |
Long Island Farm Bureau president Joe Gergela at Tuesday's press conference in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Long Island Farm Bureau president Joe Gergela speaking at Tuesday’s press conference in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Local farmers are concerned that potential legislation out of Albany aimed at cleaning up Long Island’s water will saddle them with the financial burden that comes with any new regulations.

So growers and industry advocates are calling on state lawmakers to keep farmers’ livelihoods in mind.

At a press event Tuesday at Schmitt’s Family Farm in Melville, Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela said that as lawmakers continue to work on drafting the Long Island Pollution Control bill, they must take care to provide adequate funding for research and stewardship programs that can teach growers “how to do it better,” by way of groundwater protection.

“There are high expectations by the public,” Mr. Gergela said. “They want us to farm responsibly, and these guys are doing just that.”

The bill would establish and implement a water quality protection plan aimed at reducing nitrogen levels in ground and surface waters across Long Island. At present, it’s unclear what specific regulations might be incorporated into the bill, Mr. Gergela said.

But in order for the agriculture industry to progress, he said, growers will first need science to progress.

Karen Rivara, a shellfish aquaculturist who also serves as the farm bureau’s president, said it’s in the agricultural community’s interest to protect groundwater.

“Our livelihoods, and the public’s health, depend on it,” she said, citing a personal economic loss of about $80,000 in shellfish stock last season at her farm, Aeros Cultured Oyster in Southold, because of rust tide that plagued the Peconic Bays.

“We feel strongly about the need for comprehensive planning of water quality protection,” Ms. Rivara said. “The LIFB is seeking funding from the state to continue and expand upon scientifically based methods we’ve been using for quite some time in addressing Long Island’s water quality issues.”

Ms. Rivara asked for the help of both state and county officials, including Suffolk County Execute Steve Bellone, county Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) as well as Assemblyman Robert Sweeney (D- Lindenhurst) and state Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). Mr. LaValle originally proposed the pollution control legislation in August.

Mr. Krupski, a farmer himself, was also at the press conference, along with Vito Minei, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County in Riverhead.

Over the years, Mr. Minei said, advancements in growing techniques have included organic options for pest management and the adoption of slow-release fertilizers, among others. The Cornell Cooperative Extension supports the farming communities through research programs.

And while more research will be needed, Mr. Minei said after the event, funding for his organization “has gone down steadily. ”

He said its agricultural research programs, which are funded at the county, state and federal levels, “have been facing 5 percent cuts, at least, across the board every year.”

About 40 percent of the funding for CCE comes from Suffolk County. The group also gets assistance through private donations.

The press event was also timed to coincide with National Agriculture Day, Mr. Gergela and the others pointed out.

“We are reasonable people,” he said. “We will cooperate and do the best job we can for this industry. We don’t need more regs, more mandates to put around the necks of the farmers when it’s very difficult to invest hundreds of thousands a year [into farming] and it’s very difficult to pay the bills at the end of the year.”

cmiller@timesreview.com