North Fork Environmental Council advocacy volunteers Friday celebrated the 2014 Paul Stoutenburgh Leadership Award winner, the first since the recent death of the council’s notable co-founder.
Long-time Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joseph Gergela — who is retiring after 26 years in the role — received the award, a decision that came as a surprise to some, considering the fact that relationships between farmers and environmentalists can sometimes be seen as at-odds.
“I think a number of people were surprised of the choice” council president Bill Toedter said following the ceremony, which took place at Martha Clara Vineyards.
“Look[ing] at what Joe and the LIFB have done over the years under his leadership, you better understand that farmers, like the rest of the community, need and support clean water, open space and our overall rural character,” he said in an announcement of the award, which noted that some might say the group shouldn’t recognize a person or industry that adds to the nitrogen and pesticides found in area groundwater.
Both Mr. Gergela and Mr. Toedter said the interests of both farming stewards and environmental advocates are not mutually exclusive — and that there is room to work together.
And the two certainly have.
“I am taking this honor very seriously. It means a lot to me to be recognized by this group of people,” Mr. Gergela told The Suffolk Times of the award. “They get it.”
“These are ordinary people that make up the environmental council, both in leadership and membership … That’s different than paid guns that are there to get their paycheck,” he said. “They truly care about the place they live and care about the reality of our environment.”
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Mr. Gergela said he has enjoyed working with group leaders over the years which “acknowledge[s] and understand[s] the damage by wildlife to the area, the need to continue to preserve land, the need to have a business environment that people can be successful in.”
It is a relationship that isn’t often portrayed in the mainstream media, which has failed to recognize the common ground shared between the two, he said.
A number of elected officials attended the event — including Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), Assemblymen Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), and Suffolk County Legislator and farmer Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) — each presenting Mr. Gergela with a proclamation for his work.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell and Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter also each presented him with a declaration.
During the event, Mr. Toedter explained the significance of the award, which was given in the late founder’s name. He died at his Cutchogue home July 13, surrounded by family members. He was 92.
“Mr. Stoutebergh was a leader in the community,” he said, explaining that Mr. Gergela was too a leader in his own way.
“I think Joe will be missed. He was a very strong individual who was not scared to speak his mind,” he said. “I think that will be an element that will be missed among the farming community.
“He had certainly a different approach than Paul Stoutenburgh, who reached out through teaching, he said. “Two different people, two different approaches but both trying to educate and look out for the North Fork as a whole.”
Caption: Joe Gergela at a L.I. Farm Bureau press conference last month in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)