Q&A: New L.I. Farm Bureau pres marks a couple of ‘firsts’

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.