05/30/14 8:00am
05/30/2014 8:00 AM
Farmer Debbie Schmitt at her new semi-mobile farmstand that she had built toward the end of 2013 on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: BARBARAELLEN KOCH )

Farmer Debbie Schmitt at her new semi-mobile farmstand that she had built toward the end of 2013 on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

As production costs for Suffolk County’s farmers rise, the return they receive on that investment is going down, painting a “gloomy” picture for the future of Long Island’s farm operations, according to new data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  (more…)

05/07/14 8:00am
05/07/2014 8:00 AM
Asparagus is slowly making its way into spring at Wells Homestead Acres in Riverhead. It is not ready to be harvested until it reaches a height of at least six to eight inches. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Asparagus is slowly making its way into spring at Wells Homestead Acres in Riverhead. It is not ready to be harvested until it reaches a height of at least six to eight inches. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

The lasting effects of a stormy winter have put a damper on the spring growing season, and produce that would otherwise be on farm stand shelves by now has yet to even break through the ground.

April’s end usually marks the beginning of the spring harvest across the North Fork, said Philip Schmitt of Schmitt Family Farms in Riverhead.

But this year, the season has become something of a waiting game.

“We’re hoping by the weekend to get started with some of the winter spinach,” Mr. Schmitt said. “With the rain from late Thursday and the nice weekend, things did jump a little. But we do have a long way to go. If Mother Nature cooperates from here on out we’ll be OK.”

Mr. Schmitt said the harsh winter cost him about 20 percent of his winter spinach crop, as well as some of his parsley — though he did say that there were some benefits to the deep freeze.

“When the ground freezes, it expands, and that helps to aerate the soil a little,” he explained. “It can also help with the pressures of disease and insects. With a winter like we just had, it’s certainly beneficial in that regard.”

Stephanie Gaylor of Invincible Summer Farms, an organic farm in Southold, said she’s about a month behind in both harvesting and planting her next round of crops.

“Everything we do is by soil temperature,” she said “The soil temperature is about 10 to 11 degrees colder than it normally is.”

While she has planted some varieties of tomatoes and peppers known to ripen early, she’s held off on planting other tomatoes.

“I have to wait for things to heat up,” she said, adding that she may consider planting some varieties in mulch to speed up the growing process.

“Even our asparagus came up later than usual,” she said.

Asparagus is the staple spring crop at Wells Homestead Acres in Riverhead, said grower Lyle Wells.

“We started [harvesting] the 15th of April last year, and by the 20th we were picking tremendous amount of asparagus,” he said. “This year it’s very slow growing.”

He started to harvest May 1, explaining that unlike most other vegetables, asparagus grows multiple spears from the same crown, so fields can be picked continuously.

“Instead of picking every 24 to 36 hours like we would otherwise, we’re picking every 72 hours,” he said.

But the upside of the slow start has been a surge in demand, Mr. Wells said, allowing him to sell at a higher price than normal this season.

He said he’s selling asparagus wholesale for between $2 and $2.50 a pound, where $1.50 to $2 tends to be the industry norm, though he’s not expecting those prices to last long.

“The weather seems to be turning this week, so I’m sure the price and supply will level off,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have a plentiful supply for Mother’s Day so we can fire up the grill and enjoy it.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

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