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04/15/14 6:34pm
Joe Gergela at a L.I. Farm Bureau press conference last month in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Joe Gergela at a L.I. Farm Bureau press conference last month in Melville. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

The longtime executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau has announced he’s retiring from his post after 26 years.

Joe Gergela of Greenport grew up farming in Aquebogue with his grandfather, mother and father — eventually helping to expand the family’s 35-acre growing operation.

By the 1970s, what was known as Gergela Farms grew to more than a 200 acre operation, with the family growing everything from strawberries and potatoes, to corn and cauliflower.

The 58-year-old said he has warm memories of picking strawberries with siblings on the family farm before school, from when he was as young as 6. He later decided to put his sophomore year of college on hold to help his father on the farm.

But the year of 1982 started a repetition of tough growing seasons, bringing with them minimal financial returns. What seemed like a perpetual loss of harvest forced the family out of the growing business in 1988, Mr. Gergela said — teaching him first-hand just how hard it is for farmers to stay business.

That same year, Mr. Gergela said he was chosen to become executive director of the bureau — bringing with him his first-hand farming experience and knowledge public policy he gained by working part-time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since then, Mr. Gergela said he has fought to help farmers across the island, many of which he grew up with, carry on a centuries-old way of life.

At the same time, he has dealt with a more personal struggle, living and working with Type 1 diabetes, which he was diagnosed with at age 7.

He said he is retiring to spend more time focusing on his health.

Q: How did you first become a member of the bureau?

A: In 1982 I got involved with its young farmer program, and became the Long Island representative for the state and was sent to work on the national young farmer committee.

When my predecessor was retiring, members said ‘You should throw your hat in the ring.’ I thought about it and said, ‘I’m involved, and I like the way they do things, the way they operate’… In May, it will be 26 years since I first started.

Q: What would you say is your greatest accomplishment over your career?

A: I helped with the preservation of the KeySpan property in Jamesport. We struck a deal on how to preserve that property, and I’m the one that structured that deal.

I also wrote the definition of temporary greenhouses for the New York State Fire and Building code and another bill [involved with] making horse boarding considered agriculture.

I have done a lot of different things. The most important thing that my organization has accomplished is we’re proud that we still have working old time farms on Long Island. The Wickham’s, the Wells, the Halsey’s — they started farming on Long Island hundreds of years ago, and they are carrying on the tradition.

Q: Why have you stayed so dedicated to the position?

A: I think the number one reason is I really love to farm. My father and I enjoyed farming. The harvest, to see the rewards of your effort, it’s a thrill and an adrenaline rush. It’s hard to explain to other people why farmers do what they do.

Q: What would you say to those who criticize your outspoken style?

A: Some people may say my style is bombastic because I can blow a fuse, but anyone that knows me knows that I am passionate. I store it, and I keep it in until the cork pops the bottle. 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. I’m rough around the edges — but I did it my way and I did it as straight forward as I can.

Q: Why have you chosen to retire now? 

A: It’s mostly because of health issues. It’s hard for me and, plus, like any job, it has its stress. Representing an industry that has such stakes on the issues, with that comes its challenges.

We’re involved with a lot of different policy issues that are high stakes stuff, the water [quality] issue for example. It’s a double-edged sword issue for us because the public reacts to what they see or hear without taking the time to understand the science behind the issues. We all live here. The farmers have a huge interest in it in the same way [the public does].

Q: What advice would you give to your successor?

A: The person who is going to replace me is going to need the skills to always keep the organization non-partisan, but always be able to work with difficult people and understand the system. Whoever it is has to be a people person.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I want to get in better shape health wise. Walking has become a challenge. Like walking the halls in Albany. I also want to try and eat better.

I have a new grandchild, Grayson, who is part of the reason my wife and I want to move [to Florida.] My plan is to be down there for the Christmas holiday.

cmiller@timesreview.com

04/14/14 4:23pm
Bags of Hollywood-branded heroin seized by the East End Drugs Task Force during an investigation into a Riverhead drug ring. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Bags of Hollywood-branded heroin seized in February by the East End Drugs Task Force during an investigation into a Riverhead drug ring. (Credit: Paul Squire)

A new program intended to help stem an onrushing tide of heroin use across the East End was announced Monday by local politicians.

Elected leaders at the state level — state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and assemblymen Fred Thiele (R-Sag Harbor) and Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) — said the Heroin Addiction Legislative Task Force, or HALT, will meet for the first time next month, with the hope, according to Mr. LaValle, of “combating the scourge of heroin and other opiates.”

Within the past two months, the East End Drug Task Force successfully disbanded two different heroin operations, one of which involved the sale of an ultra-potent premium form of heroin along Riverhead’s Route 58.

And according to data released in February by Dr. Michael Lehrer, chief toxicologist with the medical examiner’s office, heroin-related deaths in Suffolk County have increased by almost 300 percent in the past four years — from 28 in 2010 to 64 in 2011 and 83 in 2012, with about 82 deaths (and counting) reported in 2013. Not all drug-related cases from last year have been officially concluded, according to county officials.
The lawmakers say they hope HALT will bring together stakeholders from across the East End, including town and village law enforcement agencies, town supervisors and village mayors, to formulate a plan to address the growing heroin epidemic.

Substance abuse counselors, treatment groups and other providers will also be represented on the task force to offer different viewpoints on finding a viable solution.

“A broad-based East End approach will help us to identify areas where we can be productive,” said Mr. LaValle. “The increase in heroin use has reached alarming levels and we need to take action to address this critical situation.”

The creation of HALT is not the first heroin-related initiative to come out of Albany in recent weeks, as state leaders look to deal with overdoses related to opiate use. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced earlier this month that local police departments will be equipped with and trained in the use of Narcan, a life-saving drug that assists in overdose situations.

The effort’s overall goal is not only to attack abuse but to provide treatment services for those in need, officials said.

Chief Martin Flatley of the Southold Town Police Department said he will take part in the discussion and will attend the first meeting of HALT in May.

“It looks like a way of brainstorming to maybe come up with more effective ways to deal with heroin use, which is always of concern to us,” the chief said.

In the five East End towns, investigations involving heroin use and sales, and larger cases involving heroin distribution, are conducted by the East End Drug Task Force, Chief Flatley explained, adding that his department does net a number of arrests from its own general police work.
Recent heroin busts on the East End include a mid-winter crackdown on an operation that worked mostly along Route 58 in Riverhead and was responsible for at least six overdoses, District Attorney Thomas Spota said during a February press conference.

Authorities said heroin sold in that operation made its way across the county, as buyers from Rocky Point and Miller Place to Southold, Greenport and Southampton came into Riverhead to buy drugs.

“The time has come for a targeted approach and bold initiatives in New York’s fight against the opiate epidemic,” said Mr. Palumbo, a former narcotics prosecutor with the county DA’s office.

“I have seen firsthand the devastation that drug abuse heaps upon the lives of those affected,” he said. “This is an issue that ripples into the greater community, and it is critical for us to meaningfully address it in the form of real solutions that will be proffered by this task force.”

04/13/14 12:00pm

Dark chocolate can be good for the heart. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Everyone knows a taste of chocolate is good for the soul. But not everyone knows that it’s also good for the heart.

Depending on how it’s made, chocolate can be a heart-healthy option that reduces both inflammation of cardiovascular tissues and the risk of stroke, a new study by Louisiana State University has found. (more…)

04/11/14 3:00pm
Medical equipment to be hung on booms from ceiling to improve surgeon access to patients (Credit: ELIH Courtesy photo)

Updated surgical rooms at Eastern Long Island Hospital are expected to look like this. (Credit: ELIH Courtesy photo)

Eastern Long Island Hospital has announced plans to remodel and rebuild its existing operating room suites in a four-phase, $4.5 million project the Greenport

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hospital has dubbed “Operation Renew.” (more…)

04/10/14 3:00pm
Peconic Bay in Riverhead

The entrance to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead. (Credit: file photo)

North Fork hospitals are seeing a transformation in the local health care market — with demand shifting from inpatient services, provided in a hospital setting, to outpatient services, provided at clinics and doctor’s offices.  (more…)