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

08/03/13 2:30pm
08/03/2013 2:30 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Baiting Hollow farmer Jeff Rottkamp turning over one of his fields earlier this year for the planting of early sweet corn.

Growing sweet corn on the North Fork is an art form. It takes time, attention and plenty of fertilizer to ensure crops have enough nutrients to thrive.

The results are delicious, but the process can cause unintended harm to the environment, namely pollution from nitrogen that seeps into ground and surface water and feeds damaging algal blooms.

In an effort to achieve a successful harvest while protecting the environment, Suffolk County farmers are participating for the second year in a conservation project this summer to reduce their use of nitrogen fertilizers on sweet corn and potato crops. The technology, called controlled-release fertilizer, is designed to break down gradually according to the plant’s need for nutrients. The product would replace conventional fertilizers that can dissolve during heavy rains and enter local water systems.

Cornell Cooperative Extension and American Farmland Trust are spearheading the water-quality improvement project. CCE is working directly with 35 farmers to calibrate equipment to apply fertilizers at the correct rate. To test the product’s efficiency, samples will be taken from corn and potato crops produced with traditional fertilizer and controlled-release nitrogen fertilizer to determine if both crops are receiving adequate nitrogen, according to AFT.

“Long Island farmers are well aware of concerns about drinking water, as well as Long Island Sound and the Peconic estuary,” said David Haight, New York director of AFT. “Our project offers practical ways for farmers to sustain crop yields while reducing nitrogen entering the water.”

Last year’s program had 10 participating farmers, who were able to cut their fertilizer use by an average of 20 percent while sustaining farm productivity, according to AFT.

Marty Sidor, owner of North Fork Potato Chips in Cutchogue, said the product fits well in his planting and fertilizing plan.

“It’s very user-friendly,” Mr. Sidor said. “I have seen crops that store better and I have not seen one deficiency in the field through all this time.”

Fourth-generation farmer Phil Schmitt, owner of Schmitt Family Farm in Riverhead, is having similar success with the conservation methods.

“We practice very intensive agriculture,” he said. “We started to see that the land was getting a little tired.”

To regenerate the soils, Mr. Schmitt employs an integrated pest management approach to reduce his use of pesticides and spreads compost to reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers. As a part of this initiative, Mr. Schmitt is using controlled-release nitrogen fertilizer on all of his sweet corn.

He made the switch, he said, “to do the right thing.”

To encourage participation, the program provides risk protection for farmers interested in reducing dependence on traditional fertilizers, but concerned about possible yield losses. The farmland trust and AgFlex, a private company that manage the risks farmers face when adopting conservation practices, introduced the protection policy to 10 Suffolk sweet corn growers in 2012. It pays farmers cash if a new conservation practice, such as switching to a controlled-release nitrogen fertilizer, reduces yields — and therefore income.

Becky Wiseman, CCE’s agricultural environmental stewardship coordinator who works with farmers on the program, said it addresses water contamination, one of the toughest issues local farmers have ever faced. The region’s aquifers, the sole source of drinking water, as well as Long Island Sound and the Peconic estuary, suffer from heightened levels of nitrogen, according to the farm trust.

Suffolk County long ago recognized that safeguarding agriculture involves safeguarding agricultural lands. Suffolk launched the country’s first farmland preservation program in the 1970s. Before that, aggressive real estate development reduced land in active farming from 100,000 acres during the mid-1900s to the current 34,000 acres. Without the action, Long Island would have lost nearly all of its farms, Mr. Haight said.

Today, agriculture is the backbone of the region’s economy. Suffolk County ranks first in New York in annual farm sales, with more than $300 million in farm products sold in 2010, according to the trust.

“We hope Suffolk County will once again be a national leader by demonstrating that it’s possible to work with farmers to protect water quality while keeping farms economically viable,” Mr. Haight said.

cmurray@timesreview.com

07/03/13 8:00am
07/03/2013 8:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Farmer Phil Schmitt (left) and his sons Matt (center) and Phil Jr. loading boxes of cabbage onto a flatbed at the family’s Riverhead farm in 2011. Phil Schmitt says most food safety issues have come out of West Coast and large farm operations.

Land preservation does not pit farmland preservation against open space protection. It’s about hard work and a commitment to preserving the character of our community, towns, county and island for future generations. It’s about quality of life.

In the 1970s, Suffolk County led the way by starting the farmland preservation program. Why? Because the people had the foresight to realize the importance of agriculture to Suffolk County. The seal of the Suffolk County Legislature, symbolically, is a plow.

Over the years, the towns and county have borrowed and spent millions to achieve the goals of protecting open space and farmland. Open space was prioritized for scenic and recreational qualities and habitat and sensitive wetland areas also were protected. Acquiring a critical mass of land is crucial to the preservation of meaningful wildlife habitat. These areas also provide for the active and passive recreational activities and the access to the water that we all enjoy.

Farmland preservation is critically important and food production must not be trivialized as so few things are produced in this country. We all appreciate food quality and safety. Without active farmland we would have no choice but to become dependent on foreign nations for our food, which could be of questionable safety.

The value of locally produced food cannot be minimized. Fruits and vegetables picked at the prime of ripeness provide not only great flavor and meals, but also are at their peak of nutritional value. The health benefits of locally grown produce cannot be refuted.

My bill would not prioritize open space preservation over farmland protection, but rather give them equal footing. A benefit of farmland protection is that the government pays less per acre, doesn’t have to fence, clean or police the property and it stays on the tax rolls. The landowner is forever responsible for the stewardship.

Another goal of the legislation is to insure that the money spent is well spent. The Suffolk County Planning Department has a rating system in place for both farmland preservation and open space acquisition. The professional planners rate available parcels, and following their recommendations we should acquire the very best properties that reach a higher standard. The land should reach a certain threshold before the county invests in appraisals, etc. The designated portion of the Suffolk County Water Quality Protection money for acquisition has been heavily borrowed against leaving little to spend. Let’s make sure we preserve the highest quality open space and the best soils.

I’ll be happy to work with anyone and everyone to find a different funding source to continue the efforts to protect today’s land for tomorrow’s generation. My long record of land preservation in Southold, both in open space and farmland protection, tells the whole story.

My 28 years as an elected official have been spent saving both open space and farmland. I helped to make the difficult decisions about how to focus preservation efforts and prioritize spending our always limited resources. I look forward to bringing this commitment of preserving the best to the county level.

In 100 years my name and those in all the current and past preservation efforts will be forgotten. But the people who live on Long Island will benefit from and appreciate the hard work and resources that we used to preserve both open space and farmland.

Al Krupski is the Suffolk County legislator for the 1st District.

06/02/13 8:40am
06/02/2013 8:40 AM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Some of the North Fork's corn crops are known to be grown from genetically modified seeds.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Some of the North Fork’s corn crops are known to be grown from genetically modified seeds.

New York could become the first state in the nation to require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such, a move farmers say could put locally grown produce at a disadvantage.

State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) have sponsored legislation to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified food. The bills follow years of debate over the safety of genetically modified foods, which were introduced in the early l990s. Legislation has been proposed in several states, including California, where it was put before voters in 2012 as Proposition 37 and failed by a slim margin. Bills have been introduced more recently in Connecticut and Maine.

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is produced when genes from one species are extracted and artificially introduced into the genes of another, according to the American Heritage Medical Dictionary.

The practical applications of this process include giving a plant the ability to produce its own pesticide to deter insects, thereby saving farmers having to apply costly and potentially dangerous pesticides, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology, which investigates the risks and impacts of GMO foods.

Major GMO food crops include soy, cotton and corn, said Dale Moyer, associate executive director of agriculture for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk. It’s not employed on fresh fruits and vegetables such as oranges or peppers.

Varieties of sweet corn are the only GMO crops grown on the North Fork intended for human consumption, but they’re very limited, Mr. Moyer said. Some area farmers also grow field corn, used primarily as animal feed, he added.

Under the pending legislation sweet corn varieties grown from genetically modified seeds would fall under the mandatory labeling requirement.

“Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food,” said Mr. LaValle. “Essentially, if a foodstuff is produced using genetic engineering, this must be indicated on its label.”

But Steve Ammerman, spokesperson for the NYS Farm Bureau, said mandatory labeling is unnecessary.

“We believe the policies should be based on sound science, and the science so far is that GMO foods are safe,” Mr. Ammerman said. “Labeling would imply that GMO foods are not.”

He argues that labeling will put GMO-grown products at a disadvantage when placed next to other produce. “If a consumer walked up and saw a label that said ‘Contains GMO,’ it misleads the consumer,” he said.

Kathleen Furey, director of GMO Free New York, said genetically modified foods have not been proven safe. There have not been any long-term, independent, peer-reviewed human consumption studies to support that claim, she said. The longest study to date on GMO foods ran about two years and involved rats, not humans, she said.

The study, led by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini, found that mice fed a diet of genetically modified corn experienced increased mortality, tumors and organ damage compared to a control group that was fed non-modified corn, said Ms. Furey.

“We deserve the right to know what were eating,” she said.

About 80 percent of what shoppers see on supermarket shelves contain GMOs, said Ms. Furey. Many of the products are processed foods, including infant formulas.

Consumers do have one way of spotting GMO-free foods. Certified organic foods do not contain genetically modified products, Mr. Ammerman said.

If labeling is mandated, farmers would rather see labeling say something like “GMO free” as compared to “contains GMO,” said Joe Gergela, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

The legislation is expected to come up for a vote before the current legislative session ends June 20.

cmiller@timesreview.com

05/22/13 6:45pm
05/22/2013 6:45 PM

liveblog

The Riverhead Town Board heard opposition from the farm community to a proposed change to require stricter regulations on excavating land for agriculture during a public hearing tonight.

Farmers argued that under state law, agricultural uses are exempt from requiring permits for excavating, but Supervisor Sean Walter contends that under current rules, developers can just say they’re farming and operate sand mines instead.

The board also approved a resolution to hire Richard Marakovitz as a consultant on air traffic control issues for $200 a day, capped at $5,000. Mr. Marakovitz is being hired to help the town try to lure the FAA to EPCAL. Officials said Mr. Marakovitz has been helping the town voluntarily, but that there is a lot more work ahead on the issue.

Click below to read the recap of News-Review reporter Tim Gannon’s live blog during the meeting. The full agenda and resolution packet is below that.

 

May_22,_2013_-_Agenda by rnews_review

 

May_22,_2013_-_Packet by rnews_review

 

05/20/13 8:10am
05/20/2013 8:10 AM

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | A customer, Lucille Kurtz, inspects a boxwood plant at Verderber’s Landscape Nursery and Garden Center in Riverhead. No cases have been reported on the North Fork.

Landscapers, nursery owners and plant scientists are on the lookout for a new fungus that attacks one of Long Island’s most popular plants: the boxwood.

The boxwood blight has yet to have a significant impact on Long Island, and both the landscaping and research communities are working hard to keep it that way, said Margery Daughtrey, a plant pathologist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead.

“We will have to be quite lucky and vigilant not to bring it in from other areas,” she said.

The deadly disease, calonectria pseudonaviculata, was first spotted in the United Kingdom in 1994, though scientists are unsure of where the disease originally came from.

The blight was not a concern stateside until October 2011, Ms. Daughtrey said, when the disease was found in Connecticut and North Carolina.

COURTESY PHOTO | Boxwoods infected with the blight have a dark brown or black spot on their leaves.

Since the disease had already been well-documented in Europe, scientists in the U.S. were able to share information about the disease quickly, she said. The fungus then spread to a few other states, like Maryland, Virginia and Oregon, which are large exporters of boxwood plants. That’s kept scientists on high alert for cases in new states.

The first cases of the disease in New York were found at two garden centers in December 2011.

The fungal disease attacks the plant at the point of contact, causing signature black spots on the leaves.

“We’re used to seeing dead foliage on boxwoods for a bunch of reasons, including winter injury, but this is a disease where the leaves usually fall off,” Ms. Daughtrey said.

Bare boxwood twigs are a good indicator that the blight is present, she said, adding that gardeners may also notice thin black streaks running down the sides of twigs on blight-infected boxwoods.

Since the disease was first spotted in 2011, no more than a dozen cases of boxwood blight in the landscape have been identified on Long Island, she said, adding that the infected plants were likely circulated before word of the disease spread. None of those cases occurred on the North Fork, she said.

No cases have yet been seen in production at nurseries on Long Island, she said.

“I think our nurseries have escaped contamination up until now,” Ms. Daughtrey said. “I don’t know if they always will but they’ve been lucky so far.”

But the growing demand for boxwood — a popular deer-resistant plant — on Long Island means that may not always be the case.

“Long Island doesn’t grow as many boxwoods as it needs,” Ms. Daughtrey said. “Over time it will get moved along a lot.”

Federal funding was recently approved to research the disease, she said, adding that scientists are curious to learn why some boxwood species are more resistant to it than others.

Landscapers who have been affected by the disease have worked with the Cornell Cooperative Extension to eradicate the blight, Ms. Daughtrey said.

Most nurseries are aware of the new blight and are taking steps to prevent it from reaching the North Fork, Ms. Daughtrey said.

COURTESY PHOTO | The fungus is fatal to the boxwood plant it infects, causing its leaves to fall off.

Lou Caracciolo, owner of Shade Trees Nursery in Jamesport, said his company is screening the sources of its boxwood plants. If a supplier is from a state where infected plants are known to exist, the nursery will shop elsewhere.

“Basically, all you can do is just monitor,” Mr. Caracciolo said. “It’s a matter of infected plants coming in.”

Yet other nurseries in the area haven’t been able to find any suppliers of healthy boxwood. Homeside Florist and Garden Center in Riverhead just isn’t selling any boxwood this year.

“We can’t get healthy ones,” an employee explained.

At Twin Pond Nursery on Sound Avenue, several rows of boxwood plants — five different varieties in all — grow in one of the fields. An employee said this is the third year the nursery has grown the plants.

“The problem is there’s no fungicide for [the blight],” he said, adding the plants there came from Delaware.

Still, Ms. Daughtrey said there are steps consumers can take to keep the blight in check. Infected plants will be more recent purchases from within the last three years, she said. English boxwoods, one of the more expensive varieties, are most susceptible.

From now on, homeowners should plant boxwoods in open spaces instead of in the shade, since sunlight will help prevent damp conditions that helps the disease flourish.

Consumers and landscapers should also be most wary during cooler, wetter times of the season, she said. Scientists will be watching this season to see how the fungus behaves in drier conditions.

“We need to live with it for a while see how it behaves,” she said. “It’s new. We really don’t know what to expect.”

psquire@timesreview.com