For the first time in its 95 years of honoring members of the farming community, the Long Island Farm Bureau will be recognizing two women as the winners of its most prestigious annual awards at its .
Local farmer and Riverhead resident Deb Schmitt, of Schmitt Farms, and Randi Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest - a Mineola-based food relief organization - will be honored with, respectively, the Amherst Davis Memorial Farmer Citizen Award the LIFB Citizen Award.
Joe Gergela, executive director of the LIFB, has worked closely with both in the past. Schmitt has served on the Board of Directors and as chair of the organization's Promotion and Eduction Program, in which farmers go into Long Island classrooms during winter months to give students a real-life experience of what it's like being a farmer. Dresner, who has been with Island Harvest for 11 years, said that her relationship with the Farm Bureau has grown considerably during her time with Island Harvest, as she has helped the non-profit grow into the nation's largest food bank, serving over 300,000 people last year.
As far as both honorees being female, Gergela said "it just kind of worked out that way." A committee of farmers picks the award winners, submitting applications for nominees, so all recent winners have been picked by their peers. Though in his time, Gergela said he has clearly seen an evolution in women's role in agriculture on Long Island.
"During my professional lifetime, I've seen a lot of change with more and more women, not only involved with farming operation but also in more prominent roles, and the emergence of women-owned businesses," he said. "It's been a trend not only here, but also throughout New York and throughout the country."
Schmitt comes from a family of farmers - she's a fourth generation farmer herself - and married into another. After her grandparents ran a farm in Rosedale, Queens, they moved out to Farmingdale. Schmitt's father later rented 30 acres to farm on in Plainview after 30 years working with New York Telephone Company. In 1979, shortly after she married her husband Phil, Schmitt moved further east when she, her husband and father-in-law moved out to Riverhead to start Schmitt's Farm.
Her mother's side of the family is the Rottkamps, of Fox Hollow Farm, and her mother, father, and brother can be found locally as well, operating R and M Andrews Family Farm on Sound Avenue in Calverton. Schmitt's - which operates near the intersection of Roanoke and Sound Avenues - is family business as well, with her husband, two sons, daughter-in-law, and brother- and sister-in-law all helping keep it up.
The biggest issue facing farmers right now, said Schmitt, is abundance of regulation - not all necessarily a bad thing, she points out. Though the pressure of dealing with ever-evolving rules often leads to higher overhead for the farm, and an overall sense that farming doesn't get the recognition it deserves.
"Only 2 percent of the population left is in farming," she said. "And we are basically called an insignificant minority at this point. But I feel we are a very important minority because we grow food. And in the U.S. we grow the safest food because of all of the regulations we have compared to other countries. People in the U.S. have never had the issue of not having enough food. And because of that, they don't realize what happens in a farming operation."
While the country as a whole has certainly had few worries about food supply, it's individuals on the ground having a hard time finding food that Island Harvest is concerned with. Randi Dresner works with Schmitt, and scores of other farmers and food distributors across Long Island to find any surplus food available to keep it from going to waste, and into the mouths of those who need a meal.
"Farmers reach out to us, we reach out to them when we know we're need of certain kinds of food. We secure grant funding and purchase products from them," Dresner said. One local example is a program Island Harvest set up during the summer, , which feeds children during summer months who typically receive reduced-price or free meals at schools.
Island Harvest, according to Charity Navigator, contributes 96 percent of its charitable donations toward program expenses - rather than administrative costs.
"Island Harvest is very efficient at running its organization so the money goes to their purpose, not jobs in administration and fluff," Gergela said. "It actually goes to people."