The North Fork’s fall season has taken on a life of its own

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As she drove down Main Road in Aquebogue Saturday, Faye Friszell had one particular destination in mind: Pindar Vineyards in Peconic.

But sitting in the dense traffic — some folks were reporting that it took nearly two hours to get from Wading River to Greenport that afternoon — the Westbury resident, who said she visits the North Fork about once a month, decided she couldn’t go any farther this time around. She never did cross the border from Riverhead into Southold Town.

“I said, ‘Forget it; traffic is too much,’” she remarked, enjoying a taste of white wine on the back deck at Paumanok Vineyards.

The notoriously crowded Columbus Day weekend is still nearly two weeks away, yet the North Fork was packed with visitors this past Saturday and Sunday. It’s officially fall: the other busy season.

Deborah Pittorino, owner of the Greenporter Hotel on Front Street, said she often hears visitors wonder aloud how her establishment could be booked every weekend in the fall.

“They ask, ‘What’s going on out there?’” Ms. Pittorino said, assuming there must be one specific activity driving people to the region, though events like last weekend’s Greenport Maritime Festival do have an impact.

“I think that really is what makes us different from the South Fork,” she said, “that there’s a very large concentration. There’s a lot of focus and activities and culture around our agricultural facilities, whether it’s farming or vineyards.”

Has the North Fork become more of a fall destination than a summer hot spot? That depends on who you ask.

Ms. Pittorino said there are definitely more visitors overall during the summer months at her hotel, which has seen business increase by between 3 and 7 percent each year for the past decade. She said the hotel reaches capacity almost every weekend in both summer and fall. Come autumn, business does slow down dramatically during the week but becomes heavier again on weekends.

CHRIS LISINSKI PHOTO

Thomas and Lisa Garry of Farmingdale (from left) and Donna Brunoforte of Levittown were among the crowd at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue Saturday. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)

Ed Harbes, who owns farms bearing his family’s name in Riverhead, Jamesport and Mattituck, said Tumbleweed Tuesday — the artificial holiday celebrated across the South Fork touting the unofficial end of the summer tourist season — is “a very real phenomenon [the North Fork] experiences as well.” It’s just that come Friday, the tumbleweeds are blown away.

“After Labor Day, what happens is that midweek time almost drops in half and the weekends increase in intensity,” Mr. Harbes said. “It peaks on the weekends in October, when people are most interested in pumpkin picking. Historically speaking, that’s been the best attendance of any weekend — Columbus Day.”

Pumpkin picking — along with the number of activities that surround it — has become perhaps the North Fork’s biggest attraction this time of year. In 2013, New York was tied with Michigan for third in the nation in total acres planted with pumpkin crops, trailing just Illinois and Ohio, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In recent years, pumpkin sales across New York State have eclipsed $30 million, about 20 percent of the country’s total sales, the USDA reported in January. Suffolk County is New York’s top producer of pumpkin crops, according to USDA data, with many of those farms located here on the North Fork. According to the USDA’s 2012 agricultural census, there were 72 farms harvesting 641 acres of pumpkins across Suffolk County, about 10 percent of the state’s overall production. The number of farms selling pumpkins has doubled since the mid-1970s, with the acreage having grown nearly 400 percent. Much of that growth occurred in the 1980s.

Local farmers who focus on pumpkin sales declined to discuss their annual revenue, but each offered an individual perspective on the business.

Krupski’s Pumpkin Farm in Peconic was one of the early adopters of the crop, putting an emphasis on the bright orange fruit in 1976. Proprietor Al Krupski, who also represents the North Fork in the Suffolk County Legislature, said that while pumpkins can mean big business, that’s not always the case.

The season is concentrated so heavily on one month, he explained, that weather is a major factor. Ideal growing conditions, meaning warm soil with lots of sunlight and water, are a necessity. The vines also need to be protected from high winds.

Most important, however, is having dry October weekends for picking.

“The worst year was 2005,” Mr. Krupski said. “It was a dry, hot summer. Then it rained 21 days in October.

“If it rains on Columbus Day weekend, that throws things way off,” he added.

CHRIS LISINSKI PHOTO

David and Willa Fawer of Quogue and their daughters, Naomi and Kaela, spent Saturday at Stakey’s Pumpkin Farm in Aquebogue. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)

Those types of seasons are particularly damaging for farmers like Jim Stakey of Stakey’s Pumpkin Farm in Aquebogue, which opens the third weekend in September and does all its business in the weeks leading up to Halloween. If the weather breaks the right way, his and other large pumpkin farms in the area will service several hundred customers each weekend day. They come not only to pick, but for the hayrides, corn mazes and pony rides.

“When we first started [in 1976], it was a cost savings for [people] to be able to come out and buy cheaper products and buy locally … now it’s all about the experience,” Mr. Stakey said of the area’s growing number of fall festivals and agritainment venues. “At the end of this season, I don’t think they’ll remember what their pumpkin looks like. They’ll remember the experience of the farm.”

After operating their farm in Wading River for more than 50 years, the Fink family began to focus on agritainment in 2008. Co-owner Michelle Fink said business has grown each year since at Riverhead Town’s westernmost farm -— and fall is the busiest time of all.

“There are more things to do as a family,” she said. “There’s more offered this time of year. In summertime [people are] at the pool, they’re at the beach.”

Mr. Harbes, whose farming operations include an apple orchard and vineyard, said the fall season is also his busiest time of year. His pumpkin business began in the late 1980s with a small patch and a wagon full of the fruit at his farm stand. It wasn’t until a few years later, after repeatedly hearing from customers who wanted to pick the pumpkins themselves, that he saw the need to expand operations.

“People look forward to opportunities to just do some harvest-related activities with their families, whether it’s picking pumpkins or seeing the countryside in general, with the leaves turning colors,” he said. “We opened U-pick pumpkin fields and we started doing hayrides. And then, as opportunity and ideas permitted over the next 20 years or so, we’ve just been adding on to it ever since.

“People don’t want to drive all the way from New York City or Brooklyn or Queens or Nassau County just to hop out, grab a few pumpkins in 15 minutes, get back in their car and head back to the city,” he said.

Mary Hopkins of Long Beach visited Harbes for the first time Saturday. Living in a beach town, she said she generally tries to avoid tourists. This past weekend, however, she acknowledged that she had become one.

“We’re having a great time,” she said. “We just finished the corn maze and now we’re going to get some pumpkins.”

That full-day experience and the variety of crops harvested on the North Fork in fall — including apples and grapes, both of which Suffolk County ranks third in production of statewide — means big business for more than just pumpkin farms in late summer and early autumn.

Ken Cereola, director of operations at Palmer Vineyards in Aquebogue, said the winery does 40 percent of its annual business in September and October.

“That’s how crucial this eight-week period is,” he said. “And what is unique is that every farm is reliant on each other. The more people going pumpkin picking the more people stopping at a winery and vice versa.”

Bob Kukulski of Brooklyn is living proof of that. He stopped by Krupski’s Pumpkin Farm Saturday with his family for what had initially been planned as a day at the wineries. It was his first time visiting the North Fork in 15 years.

“We’re loving it,” he said. “It’s the best of both worlds — something for the kids and something for the adults.”

Of course, this autumn boom can lead to some anxiety for locals, who find themselves navigating alternate routes to get where they need to be or doubling their travel time. When northforker.com published a list of U-pick pumpkin farms last week, one Riverhead resident commented, “Can’t wait. One big traffic jam on the North Fork.”

“Food stores sell pumpkins, hint, hint,” added a Mattituck woman.

Mr. Krupski said he asks friends and neighbors to be patient.

“It’s really just three or four real busy weekends,” he said. “And, again, the qualifier is the weather has to be good. It’s not a crop we can store for another season. It’s one big burst and it’s done.”

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