04/15/14 6:34pm
04/15/2014 6:34 PM
Joe Gergela at a L.I. Farm Bureau press conference last month in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Joe Gergela at a L.I. Farm Bureau press conference last month in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

The longtime executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau has announced he’s retiring from his post after 26 years.

Joe Gergela, who was born in Greenport, grew up farming in Jamesport with his grandfather, mother and father — eventually helping to expand the family’s 35-acre growing operation.

By the 1970s, what was known as Gergela Farms grew to more than a 200 acre operation, with the family growing everything from strawberries and potatoes, to corn and cauliflower.

The 58-year-old said he has warm memories of picking strawberries with siblings on the family farm before school, from when he was as young as 6. He later decided to put his sophomore year of college on hold to help his father on the farm.

But the year of 1982 started a repetition of tough growing seasons, bringing with them minimal financial returns. What seemed like a perpetual loss of harvest forced the family out of the growing business in 1988, Mr. Gergela said — teaching him first-hand just how hard it is for farmers to stay in business.

That same year, Mr. Gergela said he was chosen to become executive director of the bureau — bringing with him his first-hand farming experience and knowledge public policy he gained by working part-time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since then, Mr. Gergela said he has fought to help farmers across the island, many of which he grew up with, carry on a centuries-old way of life.

At the same time, he has dealt with a more personal struggle, living and working with Type 1 diabetes, which he was diagnosed with at age 7.

He said he is retiring to spend more time focusing on his health.

Q: How did you first become a member of the bureau?

A: In 1982 I got involved with its young farmer program, and became the Long Island representative for the state and was sent to work on the national young farmer committee.

When my predecessor was retiring, members said ‘You should throw your hat in the ring.’ I thought about it and said, ‘I’m involved, and I like the way they do things, the way they operate’… In May, it will be 26 years since I first started.

Q: What would you say is your greatest accomplishment over your career?

A: I helped with the preservation of the KeySpan property in Jamesport. We struck a deal on how to preserve that property, and I’m the one that structured that deal.

I also wrote the definition of temporary greenhouses for the New York State Fire and Building code and another bill [involved with] making horse boarding considered agriculture.

I have done a lot of different things. The most important thing that my organization has accomplished is we’re proud that we still have working old time farms on Long Island. The Wickham’s, the Wells, the Halsey’s — they started farming on Long Island hundreds of years ago, and they are carrying on the tradition.

Q: Why have you stayed so dedicated to the position?

A: I think the number one reason is I really love to farm. My father and I enjoyed farming. The harvest, to see the rewards of your effort, it’s a thrill and an adrenaline rush. It’s hard to explain to other people why farmers do what they do.

Q: What would you say to those who criticize your outspoken style?

A: Some people may say my style is bombastic because I can blow a fuse, but anyone that knows me knows that I am passionate. I store it, and I keep it in until the cork pops the bottle. It’s probably not the best style but, hey; I’m a farm boy. I care about the people I represent. They are my friends. They are people I grew up with and that I respect. I’m rough around the edges — but I did it my way and I did it as straight forward as I can.

Q: Why have you chosen to retire now? 

A: It’s mostly because of health issues. It’s hard for me and, plus, like any job, it has its stress. Representing an industry that has such stakes on the issues, with that comes its challenges.

We’re involved with a lot of different policy issues that are high stakes stuff, the water [quality] issue for example. It’s a double-edged sword issue for us because the public reacts to what they see or hear without taking the time to understand the science behind the issues. We all live here. The farmers have a huge interest in it in the same way [the public does].

Q: What advice would you give to your successor?

A: The person who is going to replace me is going to need the skills to always keep the organization non-partisan, but always be able to work with difficult people and understand the system. Whoever it is has to be a people person.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I want to get in better shape health wise. Walking has become a challenge. Like walking the halls in Albany. I also want to try and eat better.

I have a new grandchild, Grayson, who is part of the reason my wife and I want to move [to Florida.] My plan is to be down there for the Christmas holiday.

cmiller@timesreview.com

03/28/14 10:00am
03/28/2014 10:00 AM

Carpenters William Kaspereit and John Kern began the restoration work on the Big Duck Ranch barn Tuesday morning. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

A new museum on the grounds of Flanders’ Big Duck is soon to take flight.

After years of preparation, construction work began this week at the historic tourist attraction’s property on a barn that will house a museum devoted to Long Island’s place in duck-rearing history.

Read more on northforker.com.

02/27/14 1:10pm
Digger O'Dell's on West Main Street in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Digger O’Dell’s on West Main Street in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

The annual fundraiser for Cornell University’s Long Island Horticulture Research & Extension is set for next Thursday, March 6, in Riverhead.

The buffet dinner will include pasta, chicken, beef and potato dishes, served by “celebrity bartenders” from the horticulture industry like greenhouse owners, landscapers, local farmers and growers.

“This is really a good fundraiser for us,” said Diane Hanwick, an administrator at the extension. “This is one of the big ones.”

Ms. Hanwick said Digger’s owner Steve Wirth offers up the space for free for the fundraiser and donates nearly all of the proceeds to Cornell — he only asks that the tips remain with his waiters.

“He’s been very generous,” she said.

Mark Bridgen, center director and professor of horticulture, said the fundraising event is in its tenth year, and has proven to be a fun night, bringing those interested in agriculture together.

Farming experts that work at the center include plant pathologists, an entomologist, grape specialists and others. They research local and regional growing methods designed to increase crop yields, improve crop quality, decrease production and marketing costs and increase production and marketing efficiency for local farmers.

They do all this while working to preserve the local environment, according to the Cornell website.

The event is priced at $20 per person, and all income collected from the meals will be donated to Cornell’s Riverhead center.

The campus, a now 68-acre facility, features state-of-the-art greenhouses, a nursery and container production area, and a plant tissue culture facility. It was established on a 30-acre farm in 1922.

Each summer the center hires student interns to help run the experimental growing operations. A portion of the proceeds will go toward funding the student interns, Mr. Bridgen said.

Digger O’Dell’s is located at 58 West Main St. in Riverhead.

cmiller@timesreview.com

02/25/14 8:00am
02/25/2014 8:00 AM
wading river hops for microbreweries

John Condzella of of Condzella Farms in Wading River is one of a few young farmers that recently entered into the agriculture industry. (File photo by Barbaraellen Koch)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its most recent report outlining the health of agricultural markets nationwide based on data from 2012. And while the number of overall farm operators are on the decline in New York State, the younger crop of farmers seems to be growing fast, numbers show.

The annual report, known as the USDA Census of Agriculture, presents national data collected from growers. The 100-page preliminary report was released online Thursday, with a full report expected to be released in late spring. Information is split up by state, and compares data between a five year period — in this case comparing 2012 and 2007.

According to the report, farmers under the age of 35 in New York State grew 14.4 percent over the five-year period, far above the modest national increase of 1.1 percent. In 2012, nearly 2,150 farmers under age 35 were running farms, including 185 under the age of 25. That compares to 159 farmers age 24 and below in 2007, and another 1,720 aged 25 to 34.

On the whole, the number of farm operators nationwide fell 4.3 percent, while New York State saw a decline of 2.2 percent.

Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said the sparked interest amongst young farmers is evident locally, however the high costs associated with farming on Long Island still stands in their way.

“Land is expensive, and access of land has been identified as one of the biggest challenges for young people wanting to start-up on Long Island,” he said, adding that the spike farms being operated by latino populations, another growing cohort statewide, has not been seen here — yet.

Statewide, the number of farms being operated by Spanish, Hispanic or Latino origins increased by 27 percent, from 220 farms in 2007 to 281 in 2012.

“Nationally, it’s probably true because there is a big latino population. Over time I think we’ll probably realize some of them in our community as well,” he said.

According to the report, land being used for farm operations in New York has increased from 7,174,743 acres in 2007 to 7,183,579 in 2012 — a .12 percent increase. Across the nation, a drop of 0.8 percent in farmland was reported.

That farmland growth in New York State correlated to a $1 billion increase in market value for agricultural products sold — an 18 percent increase in the five-year period.

Mr. Gergela said the increase in farmland has been seen locally, as a number of small farm operations have popped up since 2011.

“There’s been a movement since [2011] that has really heightened interest in not only the production side, but in nutrition general,” he said. “I think part of it is particularly families that have children are really interested in nutrition and the wholeness of their kids food. I think there is heightened awareness about food in general.”

He added that an increase in the products’ market value may not necessarily be a positive thing, as it is likely associated with overall spikes in the the costs of food nationally — which can make it more difficult to feed one’s family.

Subsidies for New York farmers over that period increased by 18 percent from $62,652 to $74,511 in that time.

In a statement regarding the newly released data, USDA agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said “the preliminary data provides a snapshot of a strong rural America that has remained stable during difficult economic times…The data confirm that farm income is at a record high.”

“A bright spot in the data is the slight increase in young farmers and the stable number of small farms and large-scale farms. This reflects our work to grow both local and regional food systems and exports, but we must do more for mid-sized operations,” he said.

Mr. Vilsack added that the the recent passage of the farm bill will also help start-up operations.

Scroll below to view the full preliminary report, and to see how New York farm operations stack up nationally.

Census of Agriculture 2012 Preliminary Report

02/06/14 6:00am
02/06/2014 6:00 AM

Barbaraellen Koch file photo | Long Island Council of Churches office manager Carolyn Gumbs and volunteer MIchael Lacy of Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton preparing side dishes for the annual Migrants Dinner in November.

Area food pantries and soup kitchens are preparing for an uptick in demand as some eastern Suffolk County households that currently receive assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, prepare to see those benefits reduced — again. (more…)