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03/17/16 9:00am

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The scene at Pindar Vineyards Friday was a little out of the ordinary. Instead of out-of-towners sampling chardonnay and pinot grigio, a health care organization was offering a free clinic in the Peconic tasting room, where bilingual employees took health histories, tested blood pressure, gave nutritional consultations, handed out specialty referrals and scheduled follow-up appointments for about 40 local agricultural workers and their family members.

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01/08/15 8:59am
01/08/2015 8:59 AM

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.   (more…)

10/27/14 3:00pm
10/27/2014 3:00 PM
Senator LaValle presented L.I. Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela with the Paul Stoutenburgh Leadership Award.

State Sen. Ken LaValle presented L.I. Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela with the Paul Stoutenburgh Leadership Award.

North Fork Environmental Council advocacy volunteers Friday celebrated the 2014 Paul Stoutenburgh Leadership Award winner, the first since the recent death of the council’s notable co-founder.

Long-time Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joseph Gergela — who is retiring after 26 years in the role — received the award, a decision that came as a surprise to some, considering the fact that relationships between farmers and environmentalists can sometimes be seen as at-odds.

(more…)

09/24/14 8:00am
09/24/2014 8:00 AM
The Suffolk County Soil and Water District celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event last week. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

The Suffolk County Soil and Water District celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event last week. (Credit: Carrie Miller)

Before there was a state Department of Environmental Conservation tasked with protecting local soil and water resources, there was the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District. (more…)

09/04/14 8:00am
09/04/2014 8:00 AM
Deer in the backyard of a Southold home. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Deer in the backyard of a Southold home. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Considering the disappointing numbers reported last week from the controversial deer cull that took place earlier this year, a call is going out to get all stakeholders — especially environmentalists — involved as state and regional authorities regroup and figure out a plan to tackle Suffolk County’s overpopulated deer herds.  (more…)

05/30/14 8:00am
05/30/2014 8:00 AM
Over 300 Suffolk County farms reported an average loss of nearly $125,000 in 2012, up from about $75,000 five years prior, though longtime Cutchogue farmer Tom Wickham (right), said one benefit of farming on Long Island is the land values. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Over 300 Suffolk County farms reported an average loss of nearly $125,000 in 2012, up from about $75,000 five years prior, though longtime Cutchogue farmer Tom Wickham (right), said one benefit of farming on Long Island is the land values. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

As production costs for Suffolk County’s farmers rise, the return they receive on that investment is going down, painting a “gloomy” picture for the future of Long Island’s farm operations, according to new data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  (more…)

04/15/14 6:34pm
04/15/2014 6:34 PM
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, who was born in Greenport, grew up farming in Jamesport 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 in 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.

[email protected]

06/19/13 11:32am
06/19/2013 11:32 AM

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Environmental activists gathered in front of the Riverhead County Center to protest a bill proposed by Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) to revise the county’s land preservation program Tuesday afternoon.

Environmental advocates lined up Tuesday to speak out against a bill proposed in the Suffolk County Legislature that’s designed to revise the county’s land preservation program.

The bill, proposed by Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), would ensure that half of Drinking Water Protection Program funds, which must be used for land preservation, would be designated for purchasing farmland development rights.

With funding for the program dwindling, the environmental activists believe legislators should focus on securing future land preservation funds “rather than declaring one land type is more superior to all others,” said Kevin McDonald of the Nature Conservancy, during the public hearing portion of Tuesday’s Legislature meeting at the County Center in Riverside.

“We should in fact be arguing for additional funding for a wildly popular program that helps both the environment and the economy,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, who also spoke during the hearing.

According to a press release from Mr. Krupski promoting his proposed bill, 95 percent of program funding currently goes to open space purchases, which include wetlands, Pine Barrens, woodlands and hamlet parks. The remaining five percent is allocated for farmland preservation, the release states.

Joe Gergela, director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said he applauds Mr. Krupski’s efforts in taking on the “sensitive” issue.

“It is a balancing act,” Mr. Gergela said at the hearing. “He has raised awareness of the importance of farmland in the program.”

Since the Drinking Water Protection Program started in 1988, about 12,000 acres of farmland have been preserved, leaving 23,000 acres to be protected, Mr. Gergela said.

Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment also took to the podium. She said that, according to the county charter, the Legislature does not have the last say on changing the voter-approved law, which directs a quarter penny sales tax on every dollar to the Drinking Water Protection Program.

A mandatory referendum is needed to make any amendments to the program, she said.

“You can’t do this legally,” she said.

“When the voters of Suffolk County approved this overwhelmingly important environmental program, they approved very specific wording and provisions and had an expectation that land preservation would proceeded accordingly,” Tom Casey, vice president of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, told legislators.

The program has secured more than a billion dollars for land preservation throughout the county, Mr. Amper said.

In 2007 the county accelerated the program, bonding purchases against future sales tax revenue through November 2011. But now the county must purchase land on a pay-as-you-go basis, significantly reducing available funds, according to previous Times/Review coverage.

Currently, the county has $25.1 million in program funds to spend on acquisition, but it already has 43 properties, totaling 420 acres, in various stages of purchase, together costing $23.9 million, according to an April 29 press release from Suffolk County executive Steven Bellone.

For future purchases, the county anticipates receiving $5 million from this years sales tax, along with $1.14 million that’s available from leftover program funds. Moving forward, it must rely solely on the yearly sales tax revenue to fund the program, according to the release.

During the hearing, Mr. Amper asked that legislators not lose sight of the program’s goal.

“This is for drinking water protection,” he said. “When you buy open space above important aquifer sources, the water below stays clean.”

[email protected]