North Fork farms ‘could lose millions’ if hurricane hits

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Unripe clusters of cabernet franc on the west side of Tuthills Lane.

Whether they’re growing corn or grapes, or raising livestock, North Fork farmers say they can’t do much to prepare for Hurricane Irene, which is expected to make landfall here Sunday.

That is, except to pray.

“Hope and pray, that’s always worth doing,” said Ed Harbes, who owns and manages the Harbes Family Farm in Mattituck. “It’s difficult to protect 200 acres from a hurricane. The biggest concern is the welfare of the cornfields and the corn mazes…in high winds they blow over and become difficult to pick.

“It’s something we’d like to avoid if we could.”

In the meantime, Mr. Harbes and his workers have been tying down “anything that might blow around a bit.”

At a meeting in Riverhead Town Hall Thursday, Councilman George Gabrielsen, who owns and operates a farm in Jamesport, said he was fearing the worst for he and his fellow growers from what could be a Category I or II hurricane.

“The farmers can lose literally millions of dollars,” he said. “Sustained winds of 60 mph and above will flatten every corn field. So there could be millions of dollars the North Fork could lose. We’re pretty nervous.”

He said the same holds true of vineyards owners.

The winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, Kareem Massoud, said it’s too early in the season to race out to the vineyards to pick grapes, as they are far from ripe. So there’s not much he and other winery owners can do, “but hope and pray, and grin and bear it.”

“We’ve already rented and secured a backup diesel generator, which could supply 230 kilowatts,” he said. “That’s way more than we need but that’s all we could get. Everybody is snapping up generators.”

The winery needs power to keep already stored wine at the proper temperatures, he said, as well as keep the lights on.

“Up until now, considering the challenging nature of the growing season thus far, the crop is looking really good,” Mr. Massoud said when asked about the health of the grapes as of now. “We’ve been dodging bullets, we’ve been grazed by bullets in the past, and hopefully we can dodge a bullet again.”

Unlike vineyard owners in Maryland or Virginia, he said, Northeast grapes aren’t ripe.

“That’s kind of a blessing in disguise,” he said, as ripe grapes are more susceptible to damage.

Ed Tuccio, owner of North Quarter Buffalo Farm in Riverhead said his bison will be out to pasture during the hurricane. The buffalo have endured a hurricane before, and were no worse for the wear, he said.

“They were grazing,” he said. “It didn’t bother them one bit. The only risk that you run is lightning.”

One of the bison gave birth to a calf Thursday morning.

“Maybe I’ll call it Irene,” he said.

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