04/15/14 6:34pm
04/15/2014 6:34 PM
Joe Gergela at a L.I. Farm Bureau press conference last month in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Joe Gergela at a L.I. Farm Bureau press conference last month in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

The longtime executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau has announced he’s retiring from his post after 26 years.

Joe Gergela, who was born in Greenport, grew up farming in Jamesport with his grandfather, mother and father — eventually helping to expand the family’s 35-acre growing operation.

By the 1970s, what was known as Gergela Farms grew to more than a 200 acre operation, with the family growing everything from strawberries and potatoes, to corn and cauliflower.

The 58-year-old said he has warm memories of picking strawberries with siblings on the family farm before school, from when he was as young as 6. He later decided to put his sophomore year of college on hold to help his father on the farm.

But the year of 1982 started a repetition of tough growing seasons, bringing with them minimal financial returns. What seemed like a perpetual loss of harvest forced the family out of the growing business in 1988, Mr. Gergela said — teaching him first-hand just how hard it is for farmers to stay in business.

That same year, Mr. Gergela said he was chosen to become executive director of the bureau — bringing with him his first-hand farming experience and knowledge public policy he gained by working part-time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since then, Mr. Gergela said he has fought to help farmers across the island, many of which he grew up with, carry on a centuries-old way of life.

At the same time, he has dealt with a more personal struggle, living and working with Type 1 diabetes, which he was diagnosed with at age 7.

He said he is retiring to spend more time focusing on his health.

Q: How did you first become a member of the bureau?

A: In 1982 I got involved with its young farmer program, and became the Long Island representative for the state and was sent to work on the national young farmer committee.

When my predecessor was retiring, members said ‘You should throw your hat in the ring.’ I thought about it and said, ‘I’m involved, and I like the way they do things, the way they operate’… In May, it will be 26 years since I first started.

Q: What would you say is your greatest accomplishment over your career?

A: I helped with the preservation of the KeySpan property in Jamesport. We struck a deal on how to preserve that property, and I’m the one that structured that deal.

I also wrote the definition of temporary greenhouses for the New York State Fire and Building code and another bill [involved with] making horse boarding considered agriculture.

I have done a lot of different things. The most important thing that my organization has accomplished is we’re proud that we still have working old time farms on Long Island. The Wickham’s, the Wells, the Halsey’s — they started farming on Long Island hundreds of years ago, and they are carrying on the tradition.

Q: Why have you stayed so dedicated to the position?

A: I think the number one reason is I really love to farm. My father and I enjoyed farming. The harvest, to see the rewards of your effort, it’s a thrill and an adrenaline rush. It’s hard to explain to other people why farmers do what they do.

Q: What would you say to those who criticize your outspoken style?

A: Some people may say my style is bombastic because I can blow a fuse, but anyone that knows me knows that I am passionate. I store it, and I keep it in until the cork pops the bottle. It’s probably not the best style but, hey; I’m a farm boy. I care about the people I represent. They are my friends. They are people I grew up with and that I respect. I’m rough around the edges — but I did it my way and I did it as straight forward as I can.

Q: Why have you chosen to retire now? 

A: It’s mostly because of health issues. It’s hard for me and, plus, like any job, it has its stress. Representing an industry that has such stakes on the issues, with that comes its challenges.

We’re involved with a lot of different policy issues that are high stakes stuff, the water [quality] issue for example. It’s a double-edged sword issue for us because the public reacts to what they see or hear without taking the time to understand the science behind the issues. We all live here. The farmers have a huge interest in it in the same way [the public does].

Q: What advice would you give to your successor?

A: The person who is going to replace me is going to need the skills to always keep the organization non-partisan, but always be able to work with difficult people and understand the system. Whoever it is has to be a people person.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I want to get in better shape health wise. Walking has become a challenge. Like walking the halls in Albany. I also want to try and eat better.

I have a new grandchild, Grayson, who is part of the reason my wife and I want to move [to Florida.] My plan is to be down there for the Christmas holiday.

cmiller@timesreview.com

06/19/13 11:33am
06/19/2013 11:33 AM

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Environmental activists gathered in front of the Riverhead County Center to protest a bill proposed by Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) to revise the county’s land preservation program Tuesday afternoon.

Environmental advocates lined up Tuesday to speak out against a bill proposed in the Suffolk County Legislature that’s designed to revise the county’s land preservation program.

The bill, proposed by Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), would ensure that half of Drinking Water Protection Program funds, which must be used for land preservation, would be designated for purchasing farmland development rights.

With funding for the program dwindling, the environmental activists believe legislators should focus on securing future land preservation funds “rather than declaring one land type is more superior to all others,” said Kevin McDonald of the Nature Conservancy, during the public hearing portion of Tuesday’s Legislature meeting at the County Center in Riverside.

“We should in fact be arguing for additional funding for a wildly popular program that helps both the environment and the economy,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, who also spoke during the hearing.

According to a press release from Mr. Krupski promoting his proposed bill, 95 percent of program funding currently goes to open space purchases, which include wetlands, Pine Barrens, woodlands and hamlet parks. The remaining five percent is allocated for farmland preservation, the release states.

Joe Gergela, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said he applauds Mr. Krupski’s efforts in taking on the “sensitive” issue.

“It is a balancing act,” Mr. Gergela said at the hearing. “He has raised awareness of the importance of farmland in the program.”

Since the Drinking Water Protection Program started in 1988, about 12,000 acres of farmland have been preserved, leaving 23,000 acres to be protected, Mr. Gergela said.

Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment also took to the podium. She said that, according to the county charter, the Legislature does not have the last say on changing the voter-approved law, which directs a quarter penny sales tax on every dollar to the Drinking Water Protection Program.

A mandatory referendum is needed to make any amendments to the program, she said.

“You can’t do this legally,” she said.

“When the voters of Suffolk County approved this overwhelmingly important environmental program, they approved very specific wording and provisions and had an expectation that land preservation would proceeded accordingly,” Tom Casey, vice president of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, told legislators.

The program has secured more than a billion dollars for land preservation throughout the county, Mr. Amper said.

In 2007 the county accelerated the program, bonding purchases against future sales tax revenue through November 2011. But now the county must purchase land on a pay-as-you-go basis, significantly reducing available funds, according to previous Times/Review coverage.

Currently, the county has $25.1 million in program funds to spend on acquisition, but it already has 43 properties, totaling 420 acres, in various stages of purchase, together costing $23.9 million, according to an April 29 press release from Suffolk County executive Steven Bellone.

For future purchases, the county anticipates receiving $5 million from this years sales tax, along with $1.14 million that’s available from leftover program funds. Moving forward, it must rely solely on the yearly sales tax revenue to fund the program, according to the release.

During the hearing, Mr. Amper asked that legislators not lose sight of the program’s goal.

“This is for drinking water protection,” he said. “When you buy open space above important aquifer sources, the water below stays clean.”

cmiller@timesreiew.com

04/03/13 1:00pm
04/03/2013 1:00 PM

FILE PHOTOS | Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela (left) said Wednesday that local environmentalists (at right) need to strike a balance with farmers over pesticide restrictions.

The battle between environmentalists and farmers over a ban on the use of certain pesticides is heating up, and tonight’s DEC hearing at Suffolk Community College in Riverhead is expected to shine a brighter spotlight on the issue.

At a breakfast meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn in Riverhead Wednesday, members of the Long Island Farm Bureau lamented an environmentalist’s op-ed published in today’s Newsday. In the editorial, Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director Adrienne Esposito called for a DEC ban on the use of three pesticides detected in Long Island drinking water: imidacloprid, metalaxyl and atrazine.

Farmers said the growing number of restrictions on pesticides used in agriculture is slowing economic development on the East End.

“I had breakfast with Adrienne last week and I said to her, ‘We find pharmaceuticals in groundwater, are we going to ban medicine?’ ” said Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela. “ ‘We’re finding fuel oil, are we going to ban cars and trucks. Why do you think you are going to ban pesticides regardless of the benefit to society?’

“Zero [use of pesticides] is an impossible standard. It cannot be met. It needs to be balanced.”

That’s a message farm bureau members say they plan to send to the state and the public in the coming months as the DEC continues to finalize the Long Island Pesticide Use Management Plan. Mr. Gergela said the Farm Bureau is currently working toward developing a new public relations campaign detailing the economic impact of pesticide restrictions on local farmers.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, say a draft version of the pesticide use management plan doesn’t do enough to protect the public from consuming contaminated drinking water.

“After more than a decade of meetings and written comments, the DEC released a new strategy in January,” Ms. Esposito wrote in her op-ed. “But calling it a strategy is misleading — it’s more like a setback.

“The DEC needs to be more proactive about restricting pesticides that contaminate groundwater,” she wrote.

Tonight’s DEC public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Suffolk’s Eastern Campus in Riverhead.

gparpan@timesreview.com

11/15/12 9:41am
11/15/2012 9:41 AM
Riverhead, Papa Nicks, Long Island Farm Bureau, kidney transplant

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | John Gergela (left) is donating a kidney to his brother Joe, executive director of Long Island Farm Bureau.

Brothers Joe and John Gergela are celebrating life in a big way this year.

Joe Gergela, 57, the longtime executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau in Calverton, became a grandfather this summer. His brother John Gergela, 47, and his wife, Debora, had their first child six months ago.

But John did more than bring a new life into the world; he also decided to save a life by donating a kidney to his older brother.

Over breakfast at Papa Nick’s in Riverhead this week, the Gergela brothers recalled how they arrived at the plan for their kidney transplant operations.

Joe Gergela has struggled with juvenile diabetes for as long as he can remember and said he first learned he had it at age 7.

He remembers a spring day when he was standing near his school bus stop on Tuthill Lane in Jamesport. All of a sudden, he passed out on the side of the road. After a doctor visited him at home, it was determined he was diabetic.

“I’ve been insulin-dependent since then — for 50 years,” Joe said.

Despite his diabetes, he continued working on the family farm with his four siblings. In 1987, after bad weather had devastated the potato industry and local farmers lost $3 loss for every 100 pounds of potatoes, the Gergelas called it quits.

“[My father] was encouraging my brothers to do something else,” Joe said. “Work hard all year and lose money doesn’t make much sense.”

Since leaving the potato farm behind, Joe Gergela has worked as executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. For over 30 years, he has worked on the policy side of the farming industry.

Around the time of organization’s 2010 awards dinner, Joe suffered a heart attack. He spent more than a week at Peconic Bay Medical Center and was then transferred to Winthrop-University Hospital for bypass surgery. During that surgery, his kidneys failed. His doctor recommended he get on the kidney transplant list as soon as possible because there’s a seven-year waiting list.

Until this summer, he has gone on living without

knowing his fate. He’s continued to work and said he’s grateful the farm bureau has been supportive and understanding of his situation over the years.

Then one Sunday morning this past July, Joe and his wife of 35 years, Donna, stopped by John’s in Middle Island to visit their new niece.

The brothers were out in the shop behind John’s house when the conversation turned life-altering: John offered his kidney to Joe.

“I couldn’t see him wait,” a teary-eyed John Gergela recalled. “He could have been on that list forever. I had to come through for him. The sooner it happens, the better for him.”

Asked if he remembered how he felt when John made the offer, Joe Gergela’s eyes welled up, his face tightened and he couldn’t speak. A moment later, he said the word “crying” and then fought tears to explain how grateful he was.

“We always took care of each other,” Joe said. “We’re always there for each other.”

John Gergela said he and Debora had talked about Joe’s situation and she supports his decision -— because, she said, she would do the same if someone in her family needed her kidney.

In the midst of planning for the surgery, John has been working around-the-clock. His company, North Shore Generator Systems of Medford, has been busy bringing power back to the tri-state area in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

“There’s a huge volume of people that still need power,” John said. “I’m spread very thin but, at the end of the day, this is more important.”

The brothers are scheduled to undergo surgery today, Thursday, at 8:30 a.m. at Mount Sinai Hospital. John Gergela said his surgery will take four to six hours. Joe’s procedure is expected to take twice as long.

“This guy right here is saving my life,” Joe said, his arm around his brother. “He’s giving me life back.”

jennifer@timesreview.com