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Q&A: Winemaker eager to represent L.I. Farm Bureau as president

For the first time in its history, the Long Island Farm Bureau will be represented by a winemaker. 

Juan Micieli-Martinez, a Riverhead resident and winemaker at Premium Wine Group in Mattituck, was elected to serve as president of the organization in late October. He founded his own wine brand, Montauk Daisy Wines, with his wife, Bridget.

“There’s a long line of past presidents that have really contributed a lot. I’m hoping to continue that change and the upward trajectory of growth and interest in farming and agriculture,” Mr. Micieli-Martinez said in an interview after running his first meeting as president earlier this week. “I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

He’s stepping into the role previously held by Bill Zalakar, the general manager of Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in Center Moriches.

In addition to his work in the local wine industry, Mr. Micieli-Martinez was also an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the Riverhead Town Board last year and recently helped form the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association.

As another successful grape harvest winds down, Mr. Micieli-Martinez spoke with Times Review about his new role, issues facing farmers and plans to invigorate the next generation of agricultural producers in the area. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you first get involved with the Long Island Farm Bureau?

A: I was the winemaker and general manager at Martha Clara up until it sold in 2018. I was aware of the farm bureau, because the wine industry — and all agricultural industries — have times where they’re being challenged, whether it be by government or another entity. I saw there were some things happening legislatively and talking with folks in the industry and some people mentioned how the farm bureau is part of the legislative process and a grassroots type thing, so it piqued my interest. I joined and started attending meetings back in 2010 and joined the executive board in 2017 or 2018. What I really like about the organization is the support you have from other members of the industry. We just had a meeting last night and in the room were also four past presidents. All of the different commodities are represented, so you really have an awareness of what issues are being faced, because each commodity has its own issues.

Q: While each commodity has unique issues to grapple with, are there top issues facing farmers in general on Long Island?

A: Labor and the availability of labor is always one of the recurring issues. That’s being felt on all fronts, not just in agriculture. And things out of our control, such as the price of fuel. That certainly has posed its own challenges for irrigation and transport of the crop to market.

Q: We’ve also heard a lot about the state lowering the threshold for overtime pay for farmworkers to 40 hours by 2032. How will that impact local farmers?

A: The cost to grow things like corn is going to go up. Thankfully, the state is going to help farmers out to a certain degree with [refundable tax credits] over time, but states like New Jersey or another adjacent state that does not have these guidelines will be able to sell their commodity at a lower price. It’s going to impact the bottom line, which tends to be very thin with agricultural commodities. 

We all know the pressure on this land here on the East End for development, so if farming can’t be financially viable … I think that would be terrible for the East End.

Q: What other local issues do you hope to focus on?

A: Trying to grow our Young Farmers program. The American Farmland Trust monitors the average age of farmers and every year that passes, that age goes up a year. 

The need for food security is also a very real one. To grow and raise our own food is of utmost importance. Wars break out, like in Ukraine, and the global supply starts to become challenged. 

Another thing is funding for our organization. There’s funding cuts from Albany, so we are going to have to become a little bit more creative.

Q: Environmental initiatives are also hugely important. How big of a threat is the spotted lanternfly, and how are farmers responding?

A: We work with partner organizations like Cornell Cooperative Extension to help kind of provide guidance to farmers on how to manage these new diseases and pests. We don’t control the weather and, to a certain extent, these diseases and pests are going to keep coming because we’re not slowing down international trade. 

I have not ever seen one live in a vineyard or farm here on the East End. That’s not to say they’re not out here. They’re likely out here in just such small, undetectable numbers. They like grape vines and fruits and feed from the sap of whatever the host is that they’ve landed on. When that happens, the plant ends up dying because it doesn’t have the sufficient sap to weather the winter. When the spring rolls back around, you’ll find plants that don’t have any growth on them or maybe have stunted growth where maybe they had enough to survive, but they’ve been greatly weakened.

Q: You’re the first winemaker to hold this role. How will that impact your leadership of the organization?

A: I hope to get more wineries supporting the farm bureau. Not every winery is a member. There’s certainly good representation but I’d still like to see if not everyone, almost everyone. The farm bureau has done a lot of work for the wine industry through the years.

It’s a diverse group. We have good representation for the five East End towns as well as Brookhaven, whether greenhouses or traditional row farming.

Q: Speaking of diversity, could the recent legalization of marijuana help crop diversity and bring in additional revenue for farmers?

A: The way I see it, if you’re hopping in a tractor, putting a plant in the ground, monitoring it, cultivating it: You’re in agriculture. We certainly support the cannabis industry as an agricultural commodity. 

It’s a newer one and some folks may be in opposition to it. It’s the same thing as the wine industry, right? Not everybody is pro-craft beverage. As long as people are using it responsibly and it’s legal, we will support it as an agricultural commodity. We do have some members in the cannabis industry and welcome others as well, too.