Farm Bureau to honor Phillips

Mary Bess Phillips, Long Island Farm Bureau

Greenport’s Mary Bess Phillips will receive the 2010 Amherst Davis Memorial Farmer Citizen of the Year Award from the Long Island Farm Bureau at its 93rd annual awards gala to be held at The Inn at East Wind in Wading River July 30.

To those who know her only as a Greenport village trustee and the operator of Alice’s Fish Market, there’s a whole other side to Ms. Phillips. She has long been involved with Cornell Cooperative Extension and has worked as an advocate and lobbyist for commercial fishing rights in an industry she says is strangled by regulations.

The Farm Bureau Citizen Award honors Ms. Phillips for her “distinguished and selfless service,” both to agriculture and to her home community, according to the bureau’s executive director, Joseph Gergela III.

“In honoring an individual such as you, we emphasize the contributory role of all farm (marine) people in civic achievement as well as the continuance of a healthy and productive agricultural industry on Long Island,” he wrote in a letter to Ms. Phillips announcing the award.

“I’m very, very honored,” Ms. Phillips said. “I’ve learned a lot working with Joe Gergela,” she added.

As a member of the bureau’s marine program advocacy committee, she was involved in developing Cornell’s SPAT program, in which residents run their own aquaculture projects to restore shellfish in the bays.

Ms. Phillips grew up in Southold, played flute in the Southold High School band and loved sports. She never envisioned the life she has led as wife of a fishing captain. While Capt. Mark Phillips is at sea fishing, it falls to her to handle emergencies by assuring that needed parts await her husband at his next port so repairs can be completed quickly. She also runs the fish market; represents fishing interests before county, state and federal regulators; and, of course, handles responsibilities on the home front that have included raising their son, Nathan, who now works for the village utilities department.

“The marriage is the business and the business is the marriage,” says Ms. Phillips, repeating an oft-spoken mantra. Only Christmas is sacrosanct for the couple, who are often apart at birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other typical family events, she said.

Ms. Phillips began her working career as a teller at North Fork Bank and advanced to became part of the team assembled by then-president and CEO John Kanas to build the bank into a significant player beyond Long Island.

When she married Mark Phillips of Mattituck in 1982 and became involved with his fishing business, she quickly recognized the need to take an active role in thwarting regulations she believed were threatening their livelihood. That regulatory battle led to her involvement with the Long Island Farm Bureau and Cornell Cooperative Extension.

She served on the Farm Bureau board of directors and eventually Cornell Cooperative Extension’s executive committee for six years, becoming chairperson of the Cornell board for one year. That term ended just before she ran for Greenport Village trustee in March 2009. But Ms. Phillips has also served the village in a number of other capacities. She was chairperson at different times of both its Historic Preservation Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, a Planning Board member and a member of the committee that drafted Greenport’s original Local Waterfront Revitalization Program.

“Mark and I just see something and do it,” she said of her civic involvement. “We’re the can-do couple.”

More than a few people have asked Ms. Phillips about her future political plans and whether she’ll run for mayor next year. She answers the same way she answered inquiries a few years ago about whether she would run for village trustee: “I don’t want to be overextended.”

She won’t seek any job until she has the time to devote to it, she said. And she was quick to list the accomplishments of Mayor David Nyce, who is expected to seek a second term, in getting work rolling on long-needed upgrades to village utilities. Besides, she noted, she will have another two years remaining on her term as a village trustee when the mayoral election is held in March 2011.

Her emphasis as a trustee, she said, has been to increase transparency and accountability, provide for succession planning in all departments and review village codes to assure they’re up to date.

“Our forefathers wanted us to be self-sufficient,” Ms. Phillips said, referring to Greenport’s incorporation in 1838 as a village separate from Southold Town. “I like to listen to people tell tales of the past because you learn from them,” she said.

And that brings her to her second mantra: “You have to understand the past to deal with the present and plan for the future.”

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