10/17/12 4:00pm
10/17/2012 4:00 PM

BARBARELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Farmer Monica Harbes (right) offers apple cider donuts to Congressman Tim Bishop (left) and United States Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to have with the hot apple cider made at her family’s farmstand on Sound Avenue in Mattituck Wednesday morning.

The deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture visited the North Fork Wednesday morning to meet with farmers to discuss how the federal government can help with challenges facing the agricultural industry on Long Island.

Deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan, named as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010, joined Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) at Harbes Farm and Vineyard on Sound Avenue in Mattituck.

Ms. Merrigan listened to owner Ed Harbes discuss the biggest challenges he has been facing as a farm owner, among them are what he called out-dated town codes from when potatoes ruled the soil rather than grapes and agritourism.

Mr. Harbes said he and his wife Monica switched from a wholesale potato and cabbage business to a direct market farm produce business in 1989, when it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a profit, especially in Long Island’s high-cost climate.

“My dear wife Monica painted a sign that said farm-fresh produce and before the sign was dry, we were in business,” he said.

Since then, the farm has expanded into a tourism destination, especially in the fall when pumpkins, apple cider and hay bales attract customers from all over.

“[The town's] trying to catch up the best they can, but they’re trying to balance community issues with ordinances that are on the books for different things,” Mr. Harbes said of town code advancements in light of agritourism. “In the meantime, I think our local community is really trying to work with us.”

Ms. Merrigan asked if liability insurance has been an issue and Mr. Harbes said it’s certainly a “hot spot,” but necessary in order to offer agritainment, which he said has become the lifeblood of his business at the farm.

“Fortunately so far, so good, but as our dealings with the public increases so does our liability insurance,” he said. “We’re really very dependent on the public and to a much smaller degree, they’re depending upon us so we want to do everything within our power to have a safe and pleasant place for them to visit.”

Ms. Merrigan then asked about finding employees for such a big operation.

Mr. Harbes said finding stable, long-term employees, rather than relying on seasonal workers, is a bigger issue area farmers face.

The deputy secretary pointed out USDA programs that she said Long Island farmers could benefit from, among them the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative.

“I really hope your family can get on that compass map and see the things that we’re doing at USDA that you may not know about that might help your operation or your neighbors’ operation,” she said of the USDA’s KYF compass map website.

Mr. Harbes said the concept behind the initiative has helped with their farm market and that people seem more and more likely to seek out locally grown produce.

Ms. Merrigan also encouraged local farmers to work on getting their products into schools, if not fresh, than through flash-freezing, preserving and collating their products with other farmers to get the quantity that schools often require.

gvolpe@timesreview.com