Local farmers were in the national spotlight on Wednesday when Congressman Tim Bishop welcomed United States Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to the East End for an up-close look at the agricultural industry.
Bishop and Merrigan, under sunny blue skies, headed to the heart of pumpkin country when they paid a visit to the Harbes Family Farm on Sound Avenue in Mattituck for a look at agri-tourism operation. Tasting homemade donuts and warm cider, the pair listened to the questions and concerns expressed by those present regarding challenges facing farmers in the current economy.
Joseph Gergela, Executive Director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, thanked Merrigan for coming. "The best farmland program we know is for farmers to be successful," he said. Gergela said the LIFB and others are "working really hard" to keep farming a viable industry on the East End, even in the face of escalating fuel prices and other challenges
Ed Harbes, who owners Harbes with his wife Monica, said the business began as a potato and cabbage farm but, as his family grew -- the couple has four sons and four daughters -- there was an economic need to move from retail to direct marketing.
From its humble beginning, a 14' x 14' foot gazebo and his son outside with a hand-painted sign advertising sweet corn, Harbes was born and evolved into its current successful incarnation, with three locations, pumpkin picking, hay rides, corn mazes, wine tasting, a family fun barnyard adventure, and other attractions. "Before the paint was dry on the sign we had our first customers," he said.
Today, Harbes said, his son and daughter-in-law have stepped in to join the business and the farms remain a family affair.
Gergela said before the tour, the LIFB hosted a roundtable with Merrigan and Bishop to outline the greatest challenges facing farmers today.
Harbes said challenges exist in the shape of trying to balance community issues with town ordinances; liability insurance is also critical in a business with so much public exposure.
Merrigan asked how many employees Harbes hires; Monica Harbes said during the height of the season, as many as 100 can be onboard. But, Ed Harbes said, the challenge remains in trying to keep employees when the work is seasonal.
He added that Harbes has worked with Cornell Cooperative Extension to integrate practices including slow-release fertilizer on the farms, as well as minimum tillage practices.
Merrigan said federal programs such as "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," a USDA-wide effort to carry out President Barack Obama's focus on strengthening local and regional food systems, could help local farmers. In addition, she said, the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass" map indicates efforts supported by the USDA and other federal partners, and offers related information on local and regional food systems.
When asked about whether local farmers participate in farm-to-school programs, to help bolster school lunch offerings with healthy, local alternatives, Harbes said there are logistical challenges, such as quantity, especially since peak growing seasons take place during the summer months when school is out of session.
That's where, Gergela said, agricultural processing facilities such as the proposed J. King facility on Sound Avenue could help, by providing refrigeration and storage options so that food can be delivered year-round.
Merrigan said a similar agricultural processing operation in Greenfield, MA, received USDA grant monies to help to rectify the problem posed by a school year that is "mismatched" to the growing season.
Gergela said local school districts could do more to utilize tax dollars to purchase local produce; parents, he said, are clamoring for healthier options for students. "Right now, we have a disconnect," he said. "It's a work in progress."
Bishop said the J. King project and others like it helped to provide value-added options for farmers looking to market their produce to a wider market.
In addition, Gergela added, a new Agriculture Consumer Science Center opened on Tuesday as an annex to the Stony Brook University Incubator at Calverton; the facility will help foster small businesses.
Bishop said an emphasis on specialty crops, as addressed in the 2008 farm bill, would help local East End farmers. He added that there was a "legislative fix" to address the labor issue faced by farmers seeking to fill agricultural jobs; the answer could come in either the farm or immigration bill, he said.
When asked about how farmers can continue despite staggering fuel cost hikes, Merrigan said the government is working to develop bio-fuel options.
Working with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Deputy Secretary Merrigan oversees the day-to-day operation of USDA's programs and spearheads the $149 billion USDA budget process; Merrigan was named by "Time" magazine as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World" in 2010.