2014 Lifetime Achievement Award: Joe Gergela

Scenic corridors, fine wine and farm-fresh produce are enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. They provide the backdrop for and help define life on the North Fork — and are testaments to the area’s rich agricultural history. But beyond all the beauty and nostalgia, farming is a business. And it’s a tough and dirty business, one that’s under constant threat from forces both natural and man-made.

For 26 years, Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, has worked to protect the farmer and, to the best of his ability, help the industry thrive. Last year, he decided to retire. Because of his lifelong passion, leadership and devotion to the North Fork’s farming community, Mr. Gergela is the recipient of The Suffolk Times’ first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.  

“Joe Gergela is both a tremendously effective advocate for the agricultural community and a lifelong resident of eastern Long Island who understands the importance of protecting the region’s natural resources for future generations,” said state Department of Environmental Conservation regional director Peter Scully. “He will be sorely missed.”

Former Farm Bureau president Mark Zaweski presents Joe Gergela with a miniature tractor as a memento at his retirement party last month. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder, file)
Former Farm Bureau president Mark Zaweski presents Joe Gergela with a miniature tractor as a memento at his retirement party last month. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder, file)

Mr. Gergela, who grew up working with his father on the family’s Jamesport farm, has enjoyed multiple achievements throughout his career, including playing a role in the preservation of the former KeySpan property in 1992. As part of that deal, which created the 314-acre Hallock State Park Preserve, Mr. Gergela and others facilitated the sale of 300 acres adjoining the park as protected farmland. Those sales raised about $3.9 million for the park’s development. The North Fork Preserve Advisory Committee is currently deciding how to develop the property for public use.

State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said Mr. Gergela “brought the LIFB into the 21st century and was able to have a dialogue with the various stakeholders, including various levels of government, the environmental community and business community, giving them a voice and a seat at the table.”

He noted Mr. Gergela’s role in helping to “bring about things like the preservation of the Great Pine Barrens, the Community Preservation Fund and other vital prospects that have preserved our open spaces including, obviously, farmland.”

Third-generation farmer Tom Wickham of Cutchogue said Mr. Gergela will be remembered “for taking up issues important to Long Island even when they were not priorities of the National Farm Bureau,” pointing in particular to Mr. Gergela’s land preservation efforts.

Commissioner Richard Ball of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets said, “Joe’s work on Long Island has been good for the whole state because, in so many ways, Long Island agriculture has been in the forefront of many issues that are starting to be thought of or expressed for upstate.”

Fred Perrin, director of member relations for the New York Farm Bureau, recalled that Mr. Gergela was originally a volunteer for the LIFB who worked to get the local young farmers group started before moving on to the state’s young farmers program and eventually the National Young Farmers’ Coalition.

“Those kinds of experiences gave him such a real down-to-earth base,” Mr. Perrin said. “He understood the issues; he could go in and talk to legislators about how it really affected farmers.”

During his career, Mr. Gergela wrote the New York State Fire and Building code definition for “temporary greenhouses,” which are popular among area growers, and worked on a bill making horse boarding an agricultural use, benefiting local horse farms.

Most recently, he helped secure $250,000 in grants so the East End could participate for the first time in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s sharpshooter program with the hope of putting a dent in the area’s rising deer population. The controversial effort ultimately saw negligible success; however, officials are now looking at alternate options for deer population control.

As executive director of the LIFB, Mr. Gergela was known for his outspoken style -— an approach some have criticized but which the staunch advocate said he won’t apologize for.

“Some people may say my style is bombastic because I can blow a fuse, but anyone that knows me knows that I am passionate,” he told The Suffolk Times in an April interview about his retirement. “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.”

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