L.I. Farm Bureau director gives Chamber update on status of industry

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela at Thursday's luncheon.

Buy local.

That simple two-word phrase has become a battle cry aimed at consumers during the recession, but this time the advice went out to business owners themselves.

Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela said buying local produce is the best way for area businesses to support a farming economy that’s been intrinsically tied to the East End for centuries.

Mr. Gergela gave the keynote address at the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce’s April networking luncheon, which took place at the Outerbanks Restaurant at the Indian Island Country Club public golf course facility in Riverhead.

There, he explained the importance of protecting the last bastion of agricultural Long Island from Brookhaven east, how he’s done the job as a 24-year Long Island Farm Bureau veteran and the biggest issues facing the agriculture industry.

A north Fork Native, Mr. Gergela farmed potatoes and vegetables in Jamesport with his father in the 1980s.

He said the biggest challenge facing the industry has been the rising cost of production over the past 10 years.

“People don’t understand that fertilizer is a derivative of the oil industry,” he said. “The cost of fuel, diesel, gas for tractors, irrigation, chemicals and fertilizer has gone up 500 percent in the last five years.”

Labor is another of the farmers’ major expenses, Mr. Gergela said. He touched on immigration policy in his speech.

“The reality is there’s 12 million or more undocumented aliens in our country,” he said. “We prefer to call them undocumented rather than using the word ‘illegal.’ We think that’s harsh. Only 40 percent came here illegally.”

He added a major reason for immigration has been to fill positions in high-tech industry, because the United States education system is currently ranked 38th in the world.

“Nationally, we employ 1.8 million farm workers, 60 percent of which are undocumented … If we did not have these farm workers, you’re talking about a $20 billion dollar hit. We’ve got a choice, we can fix this, or we can depend on foreign food. That’s the reality.”

The Federal Department of Labor is currently conducting farm inspections, he said, adding that these types of regulations did not exist for farmers in previous generations.

Suffolk County, Mr. Gergela explained, has 34,000 acres of farmland left, with nearly half in preservation by the county, towns, states or private organizations like the Peconic Land Trust. About 3,000 acres represent roughly 50 vineyards, which Mr. Gergela said are not anymore important than other farmers.

“Every farmer we have left is important,” he said. “We have 450 farmers in the county that I consider real farmers that invest not thousands, but hundreds of thousands to operate their businesses.”

Recent action the Long Island Farm Bureau has been taking, along with Cornell Cooperative Extension, is working closely with the county to further develop groundwater protection strategies, he said. He mentioned the importance of creating context for those alarmed by substances in groundwater.

“We’re talking about parts per billion here,” Mr. Gergela said. “It’s not a drop of water in a pool or a pond. It’s equivalent to a drop of water in a lake.” He said the dangers fertilizers add to groundwater have been overstated to further regulations that could make farming impossible.

“We need them to grow crops,” he said. “It’s a $3 million a year industry.  We must be able to protect our investments. There’s over 15,000 registered pesticides in the United States and we don’t want to see local government enter that arena.”

He added that a “zero tolerance policy” was suggested by environmental proponents, but explained “zero tolerance” is not feasible.

“That’s not scientifically doable,” he said. “I could pee behind a tree and in two months it would end up in the groundwater by the rain. We find pharmaceuticals in groundwater in [parts per billion], are we going to ban medicine? We’re finding breakdown of gasoline, are we going to ban cars and trucks? I don’t think so.”

Mr. Gergela added that nitrogen loading is another avenue for attack on farmers, with claims from environmentalists that farming practices are contributing to rising nitrogen levels. He said a recent study completed by SUNY Stony Brook found that 60 percent of nitrogen comes from sewage and septic systems, not farms.

“People come out to Eastern Long Island because it’s a great place to be,” he said. “We have marine industries, we’ve got fishing, we’ve got beaches, we’ve got golf courses, we’ve got farms, we’ve got wineries. Take that away from Long Island and this would be a totally different place to live.”

[email protected]