11/21/14 2:41pm
Workers at a farm off Sound Avenue in Riverhead in 2012. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Workers at a farm off Sound Avenue in Riverhead in 2012. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Business owners in local sectors long dependent on immigrant labor offered mixed views Friday on President Barack Obama’s executive action that will allow temporary worker status to millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

While most farmers, winery and restaurant owners interviewed welcomed the policy shift, several had reservations on how it came about. (more…)

09/14/14 6:00am
09/14/2014 6:00 AM
Wells Homestead Farmstand in Aquebogue. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Wells Homestead Farmstand in Aquebogue. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Well, here we are again. It’s September, back-to-school time on our North Fork. Teachers in many classrooms will ask youngsters to write a few paragraphs describing their summer vacations. And those youngsters will groan and then settle down, attempting to use big, important-sounding words, trying to impress their teacher.  (more…)

08/22/14 4:00pm
08/22/2014 4:00 PM
Hal Goodale received a $80,000 grant to help him expand the family business. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Hal Goodale received an $80,000 grant to help him expand the family business. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Milk, cheese, eggs are staples on any family’s grocery list — and thanks to federal grant funding, one of Long Island’s only dairy farms will soon offer convenient home delivery of these farm fresh necessities.

Goodale Farms in Aquebogue has received $80,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Value-Added Producer Grant program, the agency announced Monday.  (more…)

05/07/14 8:00am
05/07/2014 8:00 AM
Asparagus is slowly making its way into spring at Wells Homestead Acres in Riverhead. It is not ready to be harvested until it reaches a height of at least six to eight inches. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Asparagus is slowly making its way into spring at Wells Homestead Acres in Riverhead. It is not ready to be harvested until it reaches a height of at least six to eight inches. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

The lasting effects of a stormy winter have put a damper on the spring growing season, and produce that would otherwise be on farm stand shelves by now has yet to even break through the ground.

April’s end usually marks the beginning of the spring harvest across the North Fork, said Philip Schmitt of Schmitt Family Farms in Riverhead.

But this year, the season has become something of a waiting game.

“We’re hoping by the weekend to get started with some of the winter spinach,” Mr. Schmitt said. “With the rain from late Thursday and the nice weekend, things did jump a little. But we do have a long way to go. If Mother Nature cooperates from here on out we’ll be OK.”

Mr. Schmitt said the harsh winter cost him about 20 percent of his winter spinach crop, as well as some of his parsley — though he did say that there were some benefits to the deep freeze.

“When the ground freezes, it expands, and that helps to aerate the soil a little,” he explained. “It can also help with the pressures of disease and insects. With a winter like we just had, it’s certainly beneficial in that regard.”

Stephanie Gaylor of Invincible Summer Farms, an organic farm in Southold, said she’s about a month behind in both harvesting and planting her next round of crops.

“Everything we do is by soil temperature,” she said “The soil temperature is about 10 to 11 degrees colder than it normally is.”

While she has planted some varieties of tomatoes and peppers known to ripen early, she’s held off on planting other tomatoes.

“I have to wait for things to heat up,” she said, adding that she may consider planting some varieties in mulch to speed up the growing process.

“Even our asparagus came up later than usual,” she said.

Asparagus is the staple spring crop at Wells Homestead Acres in Riverhead, said grower Lyle Wells.

“We started [harvesting] the 15th of April last year, and by the 20th we were picking tremendous amount of asparagus,” he said. “This year it’s very slow growing.”

He started to harvest May 1, explaining that unlike most other vegetables, asparagus grows multiple spears from the same crown, so fields can be picked continuously.

“Instead of picking every 24 to 36 hours like we would otherwise, we’re picking every 72 hours,” he said.

But the upside of the slow start has been a surge in demand, Mr. Wells said, allowing him to sell at a higher price than normal this season.

He said he’s selling asparagus wholesale for between $2 and $2.50 a pound, where $1.50 to $2 tends to be the industry norm, though he’s not expecting those prices to last long.

“The weather seems to be turning this week, so I’m sure the price and supply will level off,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have a plentiful supply for Mother’s Day so we can fire up the grill and enjoy it.”

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05/19/13 7:30am
05/19/2013 7:30 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Farmer Phil Schmitt (left) and his sons Matt (center) and Phil Jr. loading boxes of cabbage onto a flatbed at the family’s Riverhead farm in 2011. Phil Schmitt says most food safety issues have come out of West Coast and large farm operations.

North Fork farmers are facing new government regulations they say will lead to too much paperwork — only to fix a problem that exists elsewhere in the U.S.

The new regulations, part of the federal government’s Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011, aim to protect U.S. consumers from contaminated food products by improving produce production and packaging safety. The regulations pertain mostly to water quality monitoring, worker training and cleanliness. They also require documentation that farmers are meeting these standards, as well as daily record-keeping of activities on the farm. The idea, according to the FDA, is that during an outbreak of food-borne illness, the records could help determine the source of the food involved.

But local farmers say all the large outbreaks of food-borne illness from U.S. produce is related to food grown elsewhere in the country.

“A lot of these issues that have come up over the years have been from the West Coast or very large growers — far from what I consider a family farm,” said Phil Schmitt of Schmitt Family Farm in Riverhead. “They have huge facilities where they produce more in two hours than I produce all year. Meanwhile, we have the same type of regulation after us.”

“I’ve been here for 25 years and I have never heard of any situation as a result of Long Island produce,” said Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela. “We’ve never had an outbreak.”

Before the new regulations were drafted, 14 FDA officials toured three North Fork farms in August 2011 to see how local farms were run.

“We showed them what the impact would be on small farms and the practicality of such regulations,” Mr. Gergela said. “We’re a bit disappointed.”

Of all the regulations, the documentation process will likely have the biggest effect on local farmers.

“All the growers are practicing so many aspects of food safety, they are just not documenting them to the extent that this new rule is going to make them,” said Sandra Menasha, a Cornell Cooperative Extension educator who trains local farmers to meet the new regulations.

Growers are going to need to be able to trace back every product that leaves their farm to the field where it was harvested, down to the hand that picked it, Ms. Menasha said. She has a 70-page document listing the different types of records growers will need to keep, which include daily temperate readings of refrigeration units, dates and times equipment is cleaned and sanitized and lists of visitors to the farm.

“We’re trying to keep up with everything but it’s getting harder,” said John Kujawski, a potato farmer in Riverhead. ”With all the stuff we have to do, it’s almost like we have to get a full-time secretary here.”

One upside to the new law is that some small farms will be exempt from the regulations. Farms with an average annual income of less than $500,000 for the past three years, which sell more of their products direct to consumers than to other distributors, would be considered exempt, according to the act.

Many area farms, however, do not qualify for the exemptions. Ms. Menasha estimates that about half of the North Fork’s farmers will still have to deal with the new regulations.

Depending on the size of the farm, the FDA estimates it will cost farm owners between $5,000 and $30,000 annually to comply with the new regulations.

Lyle Wells, whose family has been farming in Riverhead for centuries, said it would probably cost him $30,000 to hire someone full-time to handle the documentation alone, aside from all the other requirements he will have to meet.

“On top of the increased cost of production — fertilizer, fuel, the increased burden of environmental stewardship — the record keeping and regulations make it harder for our farmers to compete , not only on the world market but the U.S. market,” Ms. Menasha said. “We’re all small family-run farms,”

These new food safety regulations are still up for debate, as the FDA will be accepting comments on them through Sept. 16, a 120-day extension from its original deadline of May 16.

Comments can be submitted electronically at www.regulations.gov or mailed to Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.

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04/12/13 12:05pm
04/12/2013 12:05 PM

TIM KELLY FILE PHOTO | The federal government is making funds available to strengthen barriers separating some North Fork farms and coastal waters. This field of young apple trees in New Suffolk was flooded during superstorm Sandy when part of a nearby dike failed.

Earthen dikes in Cutchogue and Orient damaged by superstorm Sandy left 4.5 miles of North Fork farmland vulnerable to saltwater flooding, but the fields were not eligible for any kind of storm-related government assistance.

For that reason Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a waiver to allow the release of Emergency Watershed Protection program funds, originally only for freshwater projects, to repair the barriers.

On Tuesday the senators announced that five local farms, totaling 700 acres, are now eligible for funding through the EWP program, and that funding will cover 75 percent of repair costs, according to a release. The total cost was estimated at $1.7 million, leaving farm owners responsible for a quarter of that, about $450,000.

That’s certainly good news, said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

“Originally the state said ‘this doesn’t qualify, it can’t be considered,” he said. “That was a crock because it’s been used before in other states, including Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.”

New York’s two senators “interceded on our behalf and basically told them to get it done,” he said.

Each affected farm — Salt Air Farm and Wickham Fruit Farm in Cutchogue, and Latham Farm, Fred Terry Farm and Driftwood Farms in Orient — is protected by a dike. A combined 3,500 feet of dikes was damaged during the storm, according to the release.

The farms have all been a part of the North Fork agriculture community for over 200 years.

“The tidal surge was a foot and a half more than ever in our past,” Mr. Gergela added. “The dikes were dirt that had been packed down, and over 70 years the dirt eroded and flattened out. It wasn’t high enough to stop the tidal surge.”

Prudence Wickham Heston and husband Dan Heston run Salt Air Farm on New Suffolk Road in Cutchogue. They are responsible for maintaining the earthen dike the Wickham family built at the northern end of West Creek in New Suffolk in the 1930s. That structure made more land available for cultivation.

She said she’d welcome financial assistance to strengthen the dike she said has kept salt water at bay for 80 years “storm after storm.”

Flood tides during “The Perfect Storm” of 1992 caused the creek to flow over the dike, but during superstorm Sandy, winds knocked over a tree that had grown on the dike and opened a large hole that led to the flooding of 80 acres of farmland.

“That’s a major hit for us,” Ms. Heston said this week. “It’s very frustrating.”

Especially given that she and her husband have been working to improve the quality of that acreage, which had long lain fallow. The couple had hoped to expand their cut-flower crop there this year.

“We’ll see how long it takes to get the land resurrected again,” she said.

The water flowed west across New Suffolk Road into a low-lying field planted with young apple trees. Ms. Heston has little hope that they’ll survive.

“They may leaf out this spring, but if they do I suspect they’ll die in the July heat,” she said.

Fields flooded with salt water cannot be cultivated for up to seven years.

Mr. Gergela said the farm bureau is reaching out to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets to see if any other funds are available to help farmers with the remaining repair costs.

“They still haven’t determined whether they have found enough money, but they were optimistic,” he said.

Without the EWP funding, the farmers would remain vulnerable during future floods.

“We would have tried to patch the breeches, but it would have been virtually impossible because the funds were not there,” Mr. Gergela added. “It is beyond their financial ability to do it.”

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03/08/13 4:00pm
03/08/2013 4:00 PM

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht (left) of Garden of Eve in Riverhead explains her products to a visitor during Saturday’s Community Supported Agriculture Fair at Polish Hall in Riverhead.

Over 150 people gathered to hear the benefits of buying a share in a local organic farm at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York’s Community Supported Agriculture fair held at Polish Hall in Riverhead last weekend. This was the second time such a fair was held on Long Island, and the first time it was held in Riverhead.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of people here,” said Fred Lee, owner of Sang Lee Farms in Peconic. “If they could join a CSA, it would help that farm tremendously.”

Members of the community buy a farm share in the late winter, and during summer and into fall they receive a season’s worth of fresh farm produce in return.

“CSAs are very beneficial for the farms,” Mr. Lee said. “By taking payments up front, it produces a lot of up-front capital we can then use for fertilizers, land rent, to pay workers and things like that.”

“We’ve been doing this for eight years now,” Mr. Lee said. “Last year we had over 600 shares.”

Farm shares range from about $400 to $600 a season, and buyers will receive fresh produce for about 25 weeks through the summer and fall, said Nicole Dennis, CSA fair coordinator. Each farm handles shares individually, and produce ranges depending on what each farm grows, she said.

“We like to think of ourselves as a specialty vegetable producer,” said Mr. Lee, whose vegetables include bok choy, Asian radishes and snow peas. “Things that may not be in other shares.”

Steph Gaylor, owner of Invincible Summer Farms in Southold, said she plants 350 types of tomatoes and 250 kinds of peppers, and says that diversity is what sets Invincible Summer Farms apart. Ms. Gaylor said she offers 40 shares, providing shareholders fresh produce weekly for 20 weeks.

“I think this is great. CSAs on the East End have been around for a while. I think it needs to travel west,” Ms. Gaylor said.

“Long Island has some of the best soil in the U.S.,” said Roxy Zimmer, representing KK’s Farm in Southold. “I think people are discovering that the taste of food grown on local farms is more delicious. It’s a step away from the lack of quality in industrial agriculture.” She said KK’s Farm offers what’s called a Gourmet CSA that has no up-front fee.

“The people that take advantage of the farms out here really benefit,” said Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, owner of Garden of Eve in Riverhead. “Our goal is that you get more than what you paid for.”

Ms. Kaplan-Walbrecht said shareholders get seven to 9 different types of produce a week depending on what’s in season.

“I got a few people to sign up,” said Phil Barbato, owner of Biophilia Organic Farm in Jamesport. “It’s very nice to see all these people interested in organic local food.” Mr. Barbato said he only offers 50 farm shares a year.

“I think the fact that [my program] is so small, I get to know everyone personally,” he said. “I really enjoy that part.”

Mr. Barbato said he sends his shareholders weekly newsletters with updates and information about the farm. He also started a young farmers program so the children or grandchildren of his CSA members can learn about agriculture. The children plant seeds in his greenhouse, and when those seeds grow into a seedling, the kids get their own space to plant them on his farm, Mr. Barbato said.

“I want them to see what it’s like; they can see how wonderful it is,” said Mr. Barbato, who hopes to get other children in the community interested as well.

Elena and Ron Dobert of Mattituck made their way around the fair, hearing about the different types of produce each farm offered.

“We have a garden and we are trying to eat more healthy,” Ms. Dobert said. “This seemed like a good opportunity to have organic vegetables.”

About an hour later she and her husband chose to sign up with Mr. Barbato, saying the location, price and the way he would keep them informed and educated about the farm is what set Biophilia Organic Farm apart from the others.

“And he has flowers,” Ms. Dobert said with a smile. “We are looking forward to it.”

To find out more about purchasing a farm share visit farms individually or log on to nofany.org/csafair.