03/26/14 8:00am
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

01/16/14 8:02am
01/16/2014 8:02 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Aquebogue farmer Donald McKay cutting a field of hay on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO |  Aquebogue farmer Donald McKay cutting a field of hay on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.

A study released by Suffolk County in the mid-1990s declared that the availability of farmland in Suffolk would continue declining in the coming years, following the suburban sprawl that had begun in the mid-20th century.

The deer population at the time was described as “burgeoning.”

The more some things change, the more they stay the same: Farm owners at the time cited high property taxes and labor costs as threats to their business models. And, as was the case last year, in 1996 Suffolk led the state in market value of agricultural products sold.

Seventeen years later, Suffolk is updating the 1996 Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan in an effort to look at the future of the North Fork’s most visible industry, one that countywide had an estimated $275 million in sales in 2013. The update to the 1996 study, officials say, will help plant the seeds for future growth while strengthening the county’s economy as a whole.

“With over 500 farms in the county, everybody would concur that this is an industry that needs to be protected,” said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “Not so much to preserve it, but to protect it.”

According to United States 2010 census estimates, only 0.3 percent of the county’s working population was employed in the agriculture, forestry, fishing/hunting and mining sectors. Nevertheless, the ripple effect of agriculture on the tourist industry and beyond had Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone calling for changes before the study has even been completed.

Partly as a result, late last year, Suffolk officials loosened regulations on farmland on which the county had purchased development rights, allowing activities previously banned on those parcels: U-pick operations, corn mazes, larger farm stands and processing facilities up to a certain size.

But the county still has more to do, and updating the plan remains vital to the goal of sustaining and growing the industry, officials say. Paid for with $50,000 from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the entire study must be completed by August, said county farmlands administrator August Ruckdeschel.

Mr. Ruckdeschel noted that the 1996 study didn’t even mention aquaculture. “That, to me, is very problematic,” he said.

Mr. Gergela said the 1996 study was “pretty boiler plate stuff,” mostly noting the history and status of various challenges facing the industry and offering little in the way of detailed public policy for sustaining farming over the long haul.

The study also predicted that only 10,000 acres of farmland would remain in the county if Suffolk continued to conserve land as it had been doing. In the 11 years following the study (the last available data was the 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census), with the assistance of publicly-funded conservation efforts, the availability of farmland has remained largely unchanged, dropping from 35,353 acres farmed in Suffolk in 1996 to 34,404 acres in 2007. That compares to over 123,000 acres of active farmland in 1950.

Earlier this month, Mr. Ruckdeschel presented to the Suffolk County Planning Commission the results of a survey that will be used as part of the study, and he’s expected to go over the results again during the two-day Long Island Agricultural Forum at Suffolk County Community College today and tomorrow. Over 140 farmers responded to the survey (89 from Riverhead and Southold), which covered topics ranging from the products they grow and the size of their farms to the challenges they face.

The survey showed that 62 of those farmers plan to increase the size of their farming operation within five years, while just 24 said they plan on scaling back.

Concerns facing farmers in Riverhead and Southold were nearly identical, the results showed: both ranked high production costs, the availability of farm labor and high fuel costs as their top three concerns. The 44 Riverhead farmers who responded also pointed to environmental regulations and property taxes as top concerns. In Southold, 45 farmers rated climate change, environmental regulations and prevalence of pests as other big concerns.

Aquebogue farmer Lyle Wells, who served on the Agricultural and Farmlands Protection Board at the time of the 1996 study, said that on the county level, one thing government could do to address his long-term concerns would be to increase its protection of farmland — namely by devoting a certain amount of dollars to preserving farmland.

“They could dedicate more funds to the preservation of farmland versus open space, [based] on the simple fact that farming is an economic driver,” Mr. Wells said. “If they had $100 million, at least dedicate $50 million to farmland and $50 million to open space. Don’t slant it one way or the other.”

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) pitched a similar proposal last year in the legislature, though it didn’t gain the body’s support. Since farmland and open space are financed by the same pool of dedicated funds, some legislators flatly said preserving farmland was unhelpful to their districts. Mr. Krupski hasn’t said for certain if he’ll take up the issue again.

In addition to the survey, the county has held focus groups with farmers and other stakeholders in the agricultural and environmental communities as part of updating the ag plan. And the county planning and economic development departments are working on updating an inventory of the 587 farms in the county.

One thing that stood out to Planning Commission chair David Colone was the median age of the farmers who responded to the survey: 55 years, or 15 years above the county’s median age as reported in the 2010 census. Mr. Colone said one thing he hopes to see in the final draft of the plan is a strategy to lure younger people to farming.

Planning Commission member Nicholas Planamento, representing Southold Town, echoed that sentiment, also noting that in order for the region as a whole to benefit from agriculture’s success, growth has to come in a way that allows the area’s charm to remain as well.

“While we welcome agritourism, people often forget that people live out here, and this is not just a tourist zone,” he said. He also pointed to last fall’s Taste North Fork — which offered free bus service between hamlets over one entire weekend to visit local businesses — as a possible model for future growth.

While that’s just one idea he sees benefitting both the agriculture community — from wineries to restaurants serving locally-sourced food — and the local economy at large, the plan due out later this year should offer more ideas for the future.

Such ideas are a start, he noted.

“Before you can learn to run, you walk,” Mr. Planamento said. “We’re way past crawling.”

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

12/21/13 8:00am
12/21/2013 8:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Farmer Matthew Schmitt with containers of kale that was harvested Monday morning and being packaged for delivery to supermarkets.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Farmer Matthew Schmitt with containers of kale that was harvested Monday morning and being packaged for delivery to supermarkets.

North Fork farms may not be flooded with tractors and laborers tilling the fields this time of year, but that doesn’t mean farmers hang up their overalls.

There’s still work to be done — and bills to be paid.

From fixing up 65-year-old tractors to attending out-of-state conferences to delivering home fuel oil, most farmers earn a living from the land during the warmer months and turn to their to-do lists and avocations once the weather gets cold.

They just get to sleep in a little more. Sometimes.

Some local farms, however, are still harvesting late-season produce, such as kale, broccoli or cabbage. Starting this month, Eve Kaplan, owner of Garden of Eve in Northville, will be transporting produce into NYC for a once-a-month farmer’s market.

“There’s so much interest in buying local produce, people even want it in the winter. So we found it’s worthwhile to use part of the offseason not to be ‘off,’” she said.

Lyle Wells, owner of Wells Farm in Aquebogue, has stopped growing by this time and has turned his full attention to selling what’s left of this season’s crops. Mr. Wells said the new Grapes and Greens storage and packaging facility on Sound Avenue has enhanced his ability to store produce over extended periods this season.

For up-and-coming winemakers, it’s not to uncommon to take a trip south of the border – the equator, that is – where winemaking seasons are still in full swing and those looking to expand their repertoires as vintners can get experience with another vintage, or possibly even two, in one calendar year.

Kareem Massoud, whose family owns Paumanok Vineyards, has made trips to Chile, South Africa and New Zealand during past winters.

“If you’re apprenticing, it’s a great way to learn how to make wine.” said Mr. Massoud, who has taken a more central role in operating Paumanok in recent years.

While the winery’s focus this time of year is on bottling and barreling, he said that work at any vineyard never stops. Still, he said, it may be possible come late January and February to take a little bit of a deep breath before bud break occurs in late April or early May.

The main goal for all vineyard owners is to prune the vineyard before next season, he said.

And not just vineyard owners.

Tom Wickham doesn’t grow grapes. He grows pears, apples, cherries and nectarines. Even though Mr. Wickham, owner of Wickham Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, is still busy selling what’s left of his apple crop, he said he has about 10,000 trees to prune on his farm before next year.

In between, fixing up farm equipment and machinery becomes a top priority. Just last week, he said, he was able to find some vital parts for his 1947 Farmall tractor, which has had its engine rebuilt three times. In addition, greenhouse growing starts in January at the fruit farm, allowing him to bring in an early crop of tomatoes come May.

Another big on the to-do lists at most farms are capital projects, which get put on a back burner during growing season. With more time available it becomes possible to make irrigation upgrades, fix greenhouse glass or build new structures.

Or, clear structures out.

Al Krupski of Krupski’s Pumpkin Farm in Cutchogue said he’s finally getting around this winter to cleaning out barns that have housed “stuff that shouldn’t have been saved” for 10 to 20 years. Selling the items for scrap or antique value brings in additional revenue, not to mention opening up space on the farm.

Mr. Krupski will also be kept busy in his role as a county legislator, to which he was re-elected this November.

Some farmers take the few months between growing seasons to get up to date on the latest information about their profession. The Long Island Farm Bureau holds its annual agricultural forum in early January, and David Wines of Ty Llwyd Farms in Riverhead attends sustainable agriculture conferences. David’s wife, Liz, gets out of town when she can to visit her grandchildren in the Albany and Boston areas.

For some younger farmers looking to bring in additional revenue for their growing families, taking on a second job becomes part of the winter routine as well.

Mr. Krupski recalled a day when a lot of farmers used to take to the local bays and go clamming. And Matthew Schmitt, who recently had a son, has been getting calls to hop back into an oil truck for G & C Petroleum, for which he’ll again be delivering one or two days a week through the colder months after he’s done harvesting his late season of crops. His mom, Deb, used to work at Tanger Outlets during the winter.

Overall, most farmers find that winter ends up being a good time of the year to regroup and look forward to the following season and beyond.

“It’s a good time to step back, reflect and decide what to do next year,” said Mr. Wells, who farms about 100 acres. “But you always find something to keep you busy. I find as I get older, the more I sit around, the more I tighten up. So it’s better to keep going.”

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

12/12/13 5:42pm
12/12/2013 5:42 PM


CYNDI MURRAY PHOTO | The Glass Greenhouse opened its newly built farmers’ market without site plan approval from the Town, Supervisor Sean Walter said.

Riverhead Town officials are considering taking legal action against the owners of the Glass Greenhouse for illegally operating its newly built Farm Market, a 5,000-square foot, two-story building that features a full kitchen, office space, high ceilings with exposed beams, and an elevator.

A resolution discussed at Thursday’s town board work session, expected to be voted on next Tuesday, states that members have determined the property — located at 1350 Main Road in Jamesport — is in violation of various sections of the town and state code.

The Farm Market, which opened in October and held a grand opening two weeks ago, is currently operating with out a valid certificate of occupancy and outside of the town’s regulations for an agriculture operation, according to Supervisor Sean Walter.

“As much as some people want to believe it meets the town’s zoning, it doesn’t,” Mr. Walter said. “It doesn’t have site plan approval now and I don’t suspect it will get it, since it is not up to code.”

The Glass Greenhouse, which is owned and operated by Walter and Edith Gabrielsen, previously only sold plants and flowers. Three years ago they decided to expand to include a farmers market to sell a variety of fresh and prepackaged foods, manager Amanda Putnam told the Riverhead News-Review in October.

However, much of the products are shipped in from Vermont, Massachusetts and upstate New York, Ms. Putnam said. Moreover, less than 40 percent of the products are made using ingredients grown on site — a direct violation of town code, Mr. Walter said.

The decision to seek legal action against the Gabrielsens wasn’t done with haste, the supervisor said. Walter Gabrielsen’s brother, Councilman George Gabrielsen, said he has recused himself from the matter.

While the site plan has yet to be approved by the town or planning boards, the market was granted a temporary two-month-long certificate of occupancy on Oct. 4, Mr. Walter said.

Without site plan approval from the town, the market opened its doors after receiving a food-processing license from the state Agriculture & Markets Committee on Oct. 11.

Since, Mr. Walter said he has been attempting to contact both the Agriculture & Markets Committee and Farm Bureau president Joe Gergela to determine the town’s next course of action.

When the town’s temporary certificate of occupancy expired on Dec. 4, Mr. Walter said the town still didn’t have a clear plan on how to address the violations.

“It is really not agricultural production,” Councilman James Wooten said in a phone interview Thursday. “When you walk in there, you open your eyes and it’s like a King Kullen. That doesn’t quite make sense to me.”

This is not the first time the town has taken legal action against a business believed to be operating outside town code.

Similarly, in 2010, Riverhead Town took owners of the former A Taste of Country in Northville to court, claiming that its certificate of occupancy is for a farm stand, and that serving hot and cold food — which the business was doing at the time — was not permitted on the site.

Following a two-year court battle, a state Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of the town, according to an October 2012 Riverhead News-Review article.

To bring their operation into compliance, the owners are hoping to expand their business for a second time within the next six months, Mr. Wooten said Thursday. Discussions with the owners revealed the plan to create about 2,800 additional square feet in order to accommodate and sell more products being processed on site, Mr. Wooten said.

“For the most part we want to work with them,” Mr. Wooten said.  “We want to encourage agritourism, but it has to comply with our town code.”

Walter Gabrielsen declined to comment on the resolution.

“I can’t get involved with that,” he said Thursday.

The Town Board is expected to decide if it will take legal action during its next regular session on Tuesday, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m.

11/15/13 7:00am
11/15/2013 7:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | J. Kings's operation manager Pat Dean in Riverhead in the climate-controlled warehouse.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | J. Kings’s operation manager Pat Dean in Riverhead in the climate-controlled warehouse.

Lyle Wells, owner of Wells Homestead Farms in Aquebogue, used to store his excess produce in a shed. He couldn’t control the humidity or temperature and would lose about 40 percent of his stored crop because of the conditions, he said.

But since September, Mr. Wells has used Grapes & Greens — a food storage and processing facility in Calverton owned by J. Kings Food Service Professionals — to store a total of 212,000 pounds of fresh butternut and spaghetti squash harvested from his farm.

He’s losing only 5 to 10 percent of the crop now, meaning there’s more to be sold – and more profit to be made.

“It doesn’t take long [for the money] to add up really quickly,” Mr. Wells said.

Editorial: Government spending that makes sense.

Wells Homestead Farms is one of “dozens” of farms and six wineries from across the North Fork to use the facility since it opened for business this harvest season. And although the plant’s food packaging operations aren’t quite ready, its storage and refrigeration units have already made a “huge, huge difference” for local growers, said one participant, Jim Waters of Waters Crest Winery.

Get the news to come to you. Follow the Riverhead News-Review on Facebook and Twitter.

“It’s been terrific,” he said. “It’s really opened up a lot of avenues and doors for us.”

“It’s been tremendously successful,” said J. Kings owner John King.

Before the facility’s cooling storage was up and running this year, J. Kings would pick up produce directly from farms and bring it to retailers for sale.

“If they just pick it in the fields and then bring it to Stop & Shop, the product gets warmer and warmer,” Mr. King said. “It was hot as hell when we were delivering it.”

As a result, he said, that produce wouldn’t last long on store shelves. But now, produce cooled at the new facility after being picked up at the farms will last about five days on store shelves.

The facility has 8,000 square feet of storage and holds about 100 pallets of produce.

The facility is also being used by vineyards to cool wines for storage, with about 600 pallets of finished wine on the premises. The wine or grapes can later be returned to the wineries or distributed to stores, Mr. King said.

Waters Crest in Cutchogue had been using a fellow wine-grower’s facility to store its excess wine and grapes. But that was only a short-term solution, Mr. Waters said. As the other company’s wine grew in popularity, the extra storage space began to run out, leaving Waters Crest with little room to grow. Thankfully, he said, Grapes & Greens came online at the right time — for him and others.

Smaller winemakers have been waiting for a storage facility they could use without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own storage areas, Mr. Waters said.

“We’ve been needing something like this for years,” he said.

The need for a processing facility was highlighted in a study completed in 2011 by the Long Island Regional Economic Development Committee.

Citing a need to spur agricultural development on Long Island, the study recommended the building of “a strong agricultural processing center, or enterprise park, that would … provide distribution, cooling and storage of produce, allow meat processing” and perform other functions.

The Long Island Farm Bureau secured a $500,000 grant from the governor’s regional economic council initiative to get the project off the ground.

The facility officially opened last year after the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals upheld a controversial town building department permit for the property in June in the face of concerns about potential traffic and noise. But its operations were slowed down.

One neighbor, Austin Warner, filed a lawsuit against the Riverhead ZBA, as well as Mr. King and his company, to overturn the ZBA’s decision, claiming the ZBA violated state open meetings law and allowed false information when making its approval decision, among other alleged violations. In February, a state Supreme Court judge sided with J. Kings and the town, saying Mr. Warner submitted “no proof that the ZBA broke the law.”

Though the facility remained open throughout the legal battles, it was unable to get up and running in time for last year’s harvest, said Jim Alessi, Grapes & Greens’ director of agricultural services.

“By the time we got things going it was already into the fall,” he said, “Now we’re in position and it’s paying off.”

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said the facility is providing “critical” assistance for farmers to expand.

“You can’t be as large an agricultural area as eastern Suffolk is without having basic necessities met,” Mr. Walter said. “Processing and cold storage are two of those things.”

Still, many farmers aren’t using the facility just yet.

Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela said the plant’s potential advantages are slowly catching on with farmers.

“The word is starting to get out,” Mr. Gergela said, adding he expects more farmers to use the facility next year.

While the wine industry has already used the plant “extensively,” Mr. Gergela said, farmers will find the facility’s processing unit valuable now that new federal food quality regulations are being considered.

He estimates compliance with the regulations, which will set new standards for water quality, cleanliness and worker protection, would cost the average farmer about $30,000 in new equipment.

By storing their food at Grapes & Greens, farmers could avoid most of those costs, he said. In order to use the facility, farmers pay a one-time $300 fee to help offset costs incurred by the Farm Bureau in applying for the grant. Beyond that, farmers also pay a handling fee of $29 per pallet.

“As time goes on we expect the farmers are going to realize ‘Jeez, we can’t have all the special things the government wants us to’<\!q>” due to the costs, Mr. Gergela said, adding they will find a benefit in a shared facility.

As for food processing and packaging, Mr. King said the legal delays held up health department permits.

But Mr. King said he’s not entirely sure if the packaging component of Grapes & Greens will take off as originally envisioned.

J. Kings has been packaging food in Bay Shore, but found packaged produce didn’t sell on store shelves as well as company officials had hoped.

“Long Island produce is so much more expensive than other produce, so it’s kind of hard to package it,” Mr. King said.

But he’s not giving up on plans to add packaging operations to the Calverton facility, he said.

“It’s in our best interests to get this to work,” he said.

11/01/13 2:03pm
11/01/2013 2:03 PM
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Karen Rivara on the dock at her Southold based oyster business.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Karen Rivara on the dock at her Southold-based oyster business.

After nearly 60 years representing farmers on Long Island, the Long Island Farm Bureau named both its first woman, and first aquaculture farmer as president of the agriculture advocacy group.

Karen Rivara, the owner of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company – which operates in Southold as well as Connecticut – stepped into the new post on Monday, at the LIFB’s annual meeting.

Joseph Gergela, executive director of the bureau, said Ms. Rivara’s election comes at a bit of a crossroads, as water quality has come the forefront of environmental issues discussed on Long Island, and aquaculture is growing in popularity.

“Her business is effected by water quality issues, but she’s very balanced. She’s a lot more realistic and understands the problems with groundwater and surface waters,” he said. “Karen is able to hold her own in conversations about difficult issues. Whether its sod, wine grapes, vegetables, potatoes, or oysters – She gets it. She understand it. She’s a leader, and people listen to her and they respect her opinion.”

Q. What would you say is the biggest issue affecting North Fork farmers?
A. Making sure we can keep the farms viable, because it’s so expensive to farm out here. The cost of land, the cost of inputs, and then we have to compete with products from other areas that are cheaper to produce. To just maintain viability of our farms so they can get passed on to future generations – and there are a slew of policy issues that play into that.

Q. What do you think are the common misconceptions about Long Island farmers?
A. I think people don’t understand what it takes to farm out here. When you have an area where you have agriculture, and you have lots of residential property really close to those farms – the neighbors don’t understand what the farmers are doing, why they are doing things and how necessary it is to farm using those farming methods they have to be successful. There is a big difference between gardening and farming. You can’t really take what you do in a garden and transfer it to a 200-acre farm.

Q. Working in agriculture, farmers are invested in the environment. Do you consider yourself and environmentalist as well?
A.I think that I am a steward and I take the health of the environment that I work in very seriously. And I try to make sure that I have as little negative impact on the environment as possible. And for what I do I am extremely dependent on the bay being healthy. I can only grow the oysters in the hatchery for so long and then they have to be put out into the bay.

Q. Your livelihood depends on water quality. In terms of groundwater protection, if you could ask anything of Long Island’s farmers what would it be?
Keeping the trend of more environmentally-friendly farming practices moving forward. It seems to me people are using more less-detrimental farming practices than they did 20 years ago. So I would say that’s great and just keep the trend going. Keep thinking about stewardship and working with Cornell on farming practices like integrated pest management, time release fertilizer, getting involved with the stewardship program. I think the farmers on Long Island are some of the most progressive and intelligent farmers, probably on the planet – because they have to be.

Q. What legislation needs to be enacted to ensure farming remains a long-term, viable option for people on Long Island? And on the same note, fishing/aquaculture?
A. First of all we have to make sure we can preserve the farmers so we have to make sure that farming on the east and and North Fork of Long Island can be viable. That it’s not so burdensome from a regulatory standpoint that there is no way to really make a living. When you are farming in an area that is so populated, it is easy to get yourself painted into a corner from a regulation standpoint, and I think that the worst thing for this area is to lose our farmland and open space. We have a lot of young people coming into farming. Our board has a lot of young people interested in being involved, which is extremely exciting and is really a great thing for this area. They are doing different types of farming like hops and livestock – so just making sure that the farms they take over are viable.

The legislators basically all branches of government and not-for-profits like the Peconic Land Trust, everybody just has to be so creative to figure out ways to preserve land because the value is so high. Making the programs for buying development rights attractive to farmers, and I think the county is trying to do that with the Chapter 8 revisions.

The estate tax law, that is going to have to be dealt with. That is really going to come in it play because the average age of the American farmer is, I believe, in their mid-50s. If your farm is worth over a certain amount, you can be left with estate tax issues so you can’t just give it to your kids. You have to be very creative about how you pass on your farm to the next generation. It could be a viable farm, but if the acreage is valued high enough you may have a hard time passing it on. Especially for land with the rights intact because that land is more viable.

In dealing with groundwater quality, everybody contributes to that every time they flush the toilet. I think everybody who lives on Long Island has to think of themselves as a stakeholder and we all need to work together to solve the problem instead of focusing on one industry over another, and burdening that industry with regulations when you’re not really addressing the whole problem.

Q. Is there anything you hope to achieve for area farmers in your term as president?
A. If people – when I am done being president in three years, and I’ve got a lot to do – could have a better understanding and appreciation of the farm industry. Then from that, we could have a better ability to resolve issues – like for instance traffic.

I think if I can do something positive from being in this position, it would be to make this a both an economically and ecologically healthy area to farm down the line. In general we have issues with cesspools so I think if I could have people focus on the bigger picture and focus on the fact that we’re all stewards of the environment. We have to be really cognoscente. I think that I understand the issue from both sides because I live it.

10/11/13 9:00am
10/11/2013 9:00 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Pumpkin pickers in a field at Harbes Family Farm on Sound Avenue in Mattituck.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Pumpkin pickers in a field at Harbes Family Farm on Sound Avenue in Mattituck.

After a farmland preservation bill that sounded the alarm of some environmental groups was pulled earlier this summer, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski believes he has the support for an altered version to help sustain the county’s depleted drinking water protection purse.

An original draft of the bill called for splitting the spending of drinking water protection funds 50-50 between farmland and open space, as the county’s land preservation purchases currently don’t distinguish between the buying of one or the other.

Farmland, Mr. Krupski (D-Cutchogue) stated in a News-Review opinion piece over the summer, is “critically important and food production must not be trivialized as so few things are produced in this country.”

At the time, he said, 95 percent of the county’s land preservation dollars spent through the Drinking Water Protection Fund -— a 0.25 percent sales tax that Suffolk County voters approved in 1987 to tax themselves — went toward open space preservation as opposed to farmland.

But environmentalists argued that pursuant to the original 1987 referendum, the proposed changes were out of line since voters OKd the original program firsthand, and amending it would require another vote.

Mr. Krupski’s amended bill — which was tabled at last week’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee meeting -— makes no mention of setting aside a certain percentage of land purchases for open space or farmland. It does, however, set a certain threshold that parcels must meet in order to be appraised by the county, a step necessary before legislators vote on buying them up.

“If [the land] doesn’t rate to a certain level, we shouldn’t even spend the money appraising it because it’s never going to get bought,” said Mr. Krupski, who also is a farmer. He added that the average appraisal — many of which the county contracts out — costs between $2,000 and $3,000. And those that aren’t contracted out, “jam up the whole system.”

Attention to Suffolk’s land purchases through the Drinking Water Protection Fund have come to a fore in the past year after the county bonded out against future revenues and subsequently used nearly all of the funding. While land was able to be purchased for historically low dollar values, Suffolk County, Southampton and Riverhead Towns were just a few municipalities that borrowed to buy now, rather than later.

Southold — where Mr. Krupski previously served as Town Councilman before running for legislator earlier this year — decided to forego such a program because “once you’ve used it up, you have no flexibility,” he said.

As of Oct. 7, 26 parcels were in contract, had accepted offers or were in negotiation, totaling $19.9 million in land preservation commitments using drinking water protection funding. Available for future negotiation was a balance of $365,010 — though EPA Chair Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) noted in an interview that $3.7 million in revenue from 2012 should be coming in before the end of the year.

Mr. Krupski believes he has support for the new bill and interviews with members of the EPA committee confirm it at least has the support to get out of committee. Legislators Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) and DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) all support the current measure.

“Obviously, it’s significantly different from the original bill, and those changes were appropriate given the historical interest in preserving the development rights of farmland in the past,” Mr. Gregory said.

Though Ms. Hahn said the proposed thresholds favor farmland more than open space — which are measured on two difference scales.

While Mr. Krupski disagreed, since the bill was tabled at last week’s committee meeting it remains to be seen what, if any, changes, remain to be made.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and one environmentalist who protested the original bill, said that while the new incarnation isn’t worth making a fuss over, he questions what it will do to help the county’s ability to purchase much more land.

“The amendments make it less offensive,” he said. “But we don’t see any need for the legislation. The county is cautiously buying open space and farmland, as it always has, applying the criteria environmentalists and farmers agreed upon.

“At the moment, he seems to want to improve the mechanisms for acquiring land — or protecting land we don’t have money to buy. Let’s work on funding those mechanisms.”

Mr. Krupski and Ms. Hahn both said discussions are being held to generate future revenue for open space purchases, though both were hesitant to release any details until proposals are finalized.

“Obviously, we need to go in a different direction,” Mr. Krupski said.

jpinciaro@timesreview.com

09/27/13 7:00am
09/27/2013 7:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Many in the local agricultural industry say finding suitable farmhands is becoming a challenge because of an increased focus on proper documentation of workers, economics that limit how much farmers can pay and a visa program they say is too expensive.

Constantine Curup’s life as a farm worker would hardly be considered enviable.

The Guatemalan immigrant left his family in 2002 to work in the fields of Long Island.

“It’s hard, because we work in the sun, in the humidity,” said Mr. Curup, who earns $12 an hour. But his English skills have improved in his 11 years here, which helped him in picking up some better-paying landscaping work. He hasn’t seen his wife and three children — two girls and a boy, all in their teens — since 2007.

He doesn’t know when he’ll see them again.

“I have to do so much for my family,” Mr. Curup said as he waited to pay for a sports drink at a Polish Town deli one recent afternoon.

Local farmers say the number of people willing to live a life like Mr. Curup’s is dwindling — and not due only to the long, hard hours and time away from their families. Immigrant farm workers look at working in the fields as a stepping stone to more lucrative and more comfortable jobs, so they’re not likely to return after landing positions in other industries. It’s also becoming more problematic to hire such workers if they’re not in the country legally.

Scrutiny of national immigration policies has intensified in recent years and farmers have experienced greater pressure from more scrupulous government monitoring of illegal hiring practices. Many immigrants have also returned to their home countries because of the prolonged downturn in the U.S. economy.

“Usually you have lots of people knocking on the door, and this spring there was nobody,” said Paulette Satur, owner of the 180-acre Satur Farms in Cutchogue.

This season, she said, her field worker staff is down by 40 percent, pushing her to change which crops she grows and when she grows them.

Philip Schmitt of the 165-acre Schmitt Family Farms in Riverhead said he had to leave some crops to wilt in the fields this year — lettuce and turnips, for example, both labor-intensive crops — due to a lack of farmhands.

“We basically stopped taking orders [on parsley] because we didn’t have time to bunch it,” Mr. Schmitt said. “As it’s tightened up, some [immigrant workers] have gone to working for catering halls, where the money is better and they are working in air conditioning.”

Mr. Schmitt usually needs 20 to 25 workers during busy times, but he’s been trying to get by with just 15 to 18.

ON REFORM

Immigration reform advocates have championed recent efforts in Washington, D.C., specifically the Senate’s passage of a reform bill in June, as part of the answer, saying it will bring relief to employers, immigrant workers and the overall economy by getting more people on the tax rolls. But local farmers say the revamped guest worker programs included in the bill come with the same fundamental flaw as the current program: it’s too expensive for the growers, especially at the smaller farms that dot Long Island’s East End.

Joe Gergela of the Long Island Farm Bureau, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Calverton, said local farmers simply cannot afford to pay workers higher wages.

For one thing, he explained, small farm operations are much more sensitive to the slightest changes in the cost of growing and preparing products for market. Larger companies like Dole and Green Giant — or “big agriculture out west,” as Mr. Gergela calls it — have lower overhead costs because they use machinery and automated production procedures instead of relying on bodies to care for and harvest crops.

Because local farms must compete with larger operations, which set market rates, they can’t raise their prices to make up for higher wages, Mr. Gergela said.

Currently, the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program allows farmers to bring in foreign workers for up to one year, with extensions available for up to three years total. Although there is no cap on the number of workers who can enter the country legally through the program, it’s under-used because of the high costs associated with it, he said.

According to data from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, New York State farmers petitioned for 3,953 guest workers in 2012. Only 23 of those petitions — less than one-half of 1 percent — came from farmers in Suffolk County.

“It’s cumbersome, expensive and farmers do not want to deal with that type of program,” Mr. Gergela said.

Under the H-2A program, farmers are required by the Department of Labor to pay guest workers what’s called the adverse wage effect rate, an average hourly wage calculated regionally by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according Mr. Gergela and the department’s website. The New York State rate is $10.91 an hour, higher than what some farmers say they can currently afford to pay. And, Mr. Gergela explained, if growers bring on a guest worker, the minimum rate becomes mandatory for all other workers on the farm. At the same time, the rate in New York is higher than in western states like California – home of the Green Giant — where the adverse wage effect rate is currently $10.74 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor at dol.gov.

H-2A program requirements also make farmers responsible not only for the guest worker’s room and board here but also for their round-trip travel costs to the U.S. and back home.

There are about 5,000 agricultural workers on the East End, Mr. Gergela said. An estimated 60 percent of that workforce, or 3,000 people, are undocumented workers from other countries, he said.

While there is currently no official limit on the number of agricultural guest workers allowed annually under the H-2A program, only 183,860 visas were granted in 2012, according to the Department of Homeland Security website, dhs.gov. Yet close to 1.4 million workers are needed annually nationwide, Mr. Gergela said.

The Senate’s new immigration reform bill, if enacted, would cap the number of agricultural guest workers at 112,333 annually for the first three years. After the three-year mark, the bill reads, those numbers would be re-evaluated and adjusted, depending on the need and the economy. Farmers would still foot the bill for room, board and travel under the proposed program.

Under the bill, the hourly wage rate for some workers would drop to a national minimum of $9.19 per hour — at least for the first year. But wages would also vary with a worker’s job description; equipment operators, for example, would earn an hourly minimum of $11.30.

The proposed law also includes a new Blue Card provision, which Mr. Schmitt said could affect his workforce.

The Blue Card would give agricultural workers who “have performed agricultural employment in the United States for not fewer than 575 hours or 100 work days during the 2-year period ending on Dec. 31, 2012,” U.S. temporary resident status. Eventually, according to the bill, they would be able to earn American citizenship.

Mr. Schmitt warned of unintended consequences under the bill, which he said could actually further deplete the available workforce.

“Once everyone here is documented, they are going to move on to other things,” Mr. Schmitt said. “They are not going to stay on the farm. Who is going to replace them?”

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO |  Workers harvest grapes at a North Fork farm this summer.

THE WORKERS

Most migrant workers now coming to Long Island are from Guatemala, México, El Salvador and Colombia, according to a state Department of Labor spokesman.

In 1990, there were about 2,100 migrant workers in Suffolk County, mostly on the North Fork, with about half living here year-round and the other half traveling the country or internationally during the off season, according to an earlier article published in the Riverhead News-Review. Of that population, roughly 80 percent were Hispanic and 20 percent African-American, the article reported.

A current racial or ethnic breakdown of the local migrant worker population was unavailable.

José Pirir, originally from Guatemala, found his first job on a Long Island farm when he arrived here some 10 years ago.

He said migrant workers see working in the fields as a stepping stone in the local workforce.

“When they first come, they can’t speak English here,” Mr. Pirir said from a Griffing Avenue store in downtown Riverhead recently, where he had been speaking with his mother by phone. “They learn some English and then they start looking for other jobs.”

That’s what he did, he said.

After two years on a farm in Peconic, he found work with a contractor and now does carpentry.

“I was treated good there, but it’s really hard work and they do not pay enough money,” Mr. Pirir said of his life in farming. “I understand why. [The farmers] only get a few dollars for a pound of tomatoes. It’s not easy to pay $20 an hour to have a man pick tomatoes all day.”

He blamed the unstable economy and competition among East End farms for the current shortage of farm workers on the North Fork.

“It depends on the location,” Mr. Pirir said “In Southampton or Bridgehampton they give you $15 an hour. If you go to Sound Avenue [on the North Fork] you’re going to get $10 or $12. Where would you want to go?”

Amagansett farm owner Alex Balsam didn’t deny that farms on the South Fork often pay more.

He said his $15 hourly wage helps him keep the workers he needs — and that he needs to pay those rates.

“We’re in a situation on the South Fork where everything is more expensive,” he said. “We sell our produce for a higher price, but even though it seems higher, it’s just all part of the game out here” on the South Fork, where the cost of living is higher than other areas in the region.

He also said there are so many farms on the North Fork that workers can be harder to come by, due to the demand.

The migrant worker population has increased over the past two decades in part because of the burgeoning wine industry. And vineyard owners say they are facing their own challenges.

“We have steady, year-round employees,” said Ron Goerler Jr., owner of Jamesport Vineyard and president of the Long Island Wine Council trade group. “The real issue has become the part-time people that we need to harvest. You can’t do certain things, say, leaf removal. And if you don’t do it on a timely basis, the fruit can’t ripen properly. Hand-picking is the best, and if you’re trying to make the best quality wine, you still need the bodies to get the work done.”

He also said vineyards are trying to pool resources, noting that he’d received a call just this past Friday from a neighboring winery asking to borrow four or five workers for harvest. And while wineries are getting by, he said, the trend can be alarming to the entire industry.

“A lack of workers presents a lot of different challenges in terms of the future,” Mr. Goerler said. “If you’re not going to have the labor, you’re not going to expand, which means you’re not in a healthy situation.”

THE COSTS

Scrutiny of hiring practices has intensified in recent years, which has also hurt the availability of immigrant workers, Mr. Gergela said, adding that farmers are being audited to ensure paperwork is complete and Social Security cards are available, and it’s happening more frequently than in the past.

“It happens every few years,” he said of the average crackdown on farmers.

“The government has stepped up pressure on employers,” he said. “We have to be careful that workers are who they say they are, which is affecting hiring practices.”

Documentation issues on farms may also be pushing migrant workforce into other sectors, he said.

Some experts say local immigration laws, and with them stepped-up enforcement efforts, have already hurt agriculture in other states.

“In Alabama they lost around 40 percent of their workers when they passed an immigration law, and a similar pattern was repeated in Georgia,” said John Rizzo, an economics professor at Stony Brook University and chief economist for the Long Island Association, a regional business advocacy group. “So we can expect that if it happened on Long Island the agricultural industry would suffer significantly.

“The question is, these undocumented immigrants who are agricultural workers, are they taking jobs away from immigrants who are documented or U.S.-born citizens?” he continued. “I think the evidence suggests that people are not beating down the doors to take these jobs. And if these jobs aren’t filled, the agriculture sector is going to suffer.”

As for the social and public services undocumented workers use, Mr. Rizzo said much evidence suggests that government health care spending for undocumented immigrants — often cited by the public and media pundits — is about 40 to 60 percent below what is spent on other populations.

“The challenge is that undocumented workers aren’t evenly distributed across geographic areas, including Long Island,” he said. “So areas with high concentrations of undocumented immigrants, like Texas and Arizona and some areas of Long Island, may incur substantial net costs to their local and state governments. Undocumented immigrants are going to use public assistance, medical care and schools and with areas of high concentrations, those areas may bear those costs disproportionately.”

Gregory Maney, a professor of sociology at Hofstra University who specializes in day labor markets on Long Island, said there is much evidence that shows a net economic benefit of the overall immigrant workforce in the county.

“I think this emphasis on all take and no giveback to the community is misleading,” Mr. Maney said. “The wages they receive are often low. They are effectively subsidizing the farmers who are using them, and the consumers, who are getting cheaper produce as a result.”

As for the immigration reform measure passed by the Senate, Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), whose district spans the entire East End and Brookhaven Town, called it “a good bill,” but added, “There’s no such thing as a perfect bill.”

He said he believes the bill stands little chance of approval in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where GOP leaders in July declared it ”dead on arrival.”

House Republicans are largely against “path to citizenship” provisions that give immigrants who came here illegally preferential treatment over those living here with proper documentation.

The House will likely be looking at immigration in a piecemeal approach, Mr. Bishop predicted, taking sections from the Senate’s comprehensive bill – which includes the agricultural worker program — and passing them over time. But even that may take a while, he said.

With the conflicts in Syria and fiscal issues taking precedence, Mr. Bishop said, “immigration will be pushed to a very distant back burner.”

Thirty-four thousand acres of farmland can be found in Suffolk County, contributing close to $300 million annually to the state’s agriculture economy — more than any other county in the state, according to the American Farmland Trust.

It’s an industry that could be severely affected by a lack of action in Washington to fix a “broken system,” Mr. Bishop said.

“I have been working with the Long Island Farm Bureau for years on immigration and I will collaborate closely with them as comprehensive reform continues through the legislative process,” he said of the local farmers’ criticisms with the bill passed in June. “The Senate bill is not the law of the land, but it represents progress towards the ultimate goal of delivering farmers the legal and taxpaying workers they need to operate.”

Stressing the local importance of some sort of resolution to the immigration dilemma, Mr. Bishop said that if costs and labor shortage issues drive more and more East End farmers to get out of the business, the region “could have open space preservation issues.”

cmiller@timesreview.com