05/02/14 7:00am
05/02/2014 7:00 AM
Stephanie Gaylor, holding Hawaiian tomato seeds inside her greenhouse. (Carrie Miller photo)

Stephanie Gaylor, holding Hawaiian tomato seeds inside her greenhouse. (Carrie Miller photo)

Picture the most unusual, visually appealing tomato salad you’ve ever seen. Not just a sea of your typical shades of red. We’re talking blue tomatoes, white tomatoes, even speckled and striped tomatoes. These varieties aren’t fruits of the future, but rather heirlooms of the past, grown from seeds that have been handed down for centuries from grower to grower.

Mattituck farmer Stephanie Gaylor has long feared that if farmers don’t continue growing these varieties and saving their seeds, many species could be lost forever. Seeds lose their vigor over time and are typically unable to grow a plant after about 18 months.  (more…)

04/25/14 11:00am
04/25/2014 11:00 AM
(Credit: Barbarallen Koch)

This 19.2-acre parcel on the east side of Young’s Avenue allows programs at the Southold Agricultural Center to expand. The Peconic Land Trust acquired the land in a like-kind exchange from the Krupski family on March 28.(Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

When Holly and Chris Browder needed help with their irrigation system or getting their field seeded, Dan Heston was there. Mr. Heston, 45, would also roll up his sleeves and delve into the dirty job of turning compost for the Browders, who were just getting started in the poultry business.

In return, the Browders supplied him with free farm-fresh eggs — and, at times, new perspectives about farming.  (more…)

04/25/14 11:00am
Thomas and Brianne Hart purchased their Main Road farm in Southold in December. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Thomas and Brianne Hart purchased their Main Road farm in Southold in December. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Waking up to do farm chores like feeding pigs, gathering fresh eggs and laying out bedding for a chirping crew of baby chicks is exactly the type of life Southold couple Tom and Brianne Hart, both 29, had dreamed of.

They began raising livestock on rented property in Orient in 2012. And in December, with the support of their families, the Harts realized their dream when they purchased a 10-acre farm on Main Road in Southold, officially establishing Deep Roots Farm.  (more…)

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.

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“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.