Retiring longtime farm bureau executive director Joe Gergela may be on “the Derek Jeter farewell tour,” but that doesn’t mean the outspoken farmers’ advocate is ready to retire his bully pulpit — even when he’s picking up an award from an environmental group he’s gone nose-to-nose with for three decades.
When Gergela took the microphone Friday night after being presented with the 2014 Paul Stoutenburgh Leadership Award by the North Fork Environmental Council in Riverhead, Gergela did what Gergela’s done for the past 26 years. He advocated for farmers’ rights, speaking passionately and at length on the difficulties of farming, and on controversial topics like pesticide use, fertilizers and nitrogen pollution and the deer cull.
“I’ve always tried to work with the environmental community over the years — some of its leaders are very tough. But I stood up for my farmers and I will always stand up for my farmers,” Gergela told the gathering of about 75 people at the NFEC’s annual Chili Night event at Martha Clara Vineyards.
“I’m always going to be a farmer.”
Gergela described how he grew up on a farm in Laurel, graduated from Mercy High School in 1973 and went to St. Bonaventure University. He had to quit college after two years to help his dad run the farm after his grandfather passed away” he said.
“Life was good until 1982,” he said, when a freak April snowstorm followed by torrential rains and plummeting potato prices brought his family to the brink of financial ruin.
“At the end of the day, we lost a quarter-million dollars,” Gergela said.
He spoke of his shock one evening that autumn when he went out to close the barn doors.
“I found my father with a rope over the beam in the barn,” Gergela recalled in a thick voice. He had arrived in time to prevent his father from carrying out his intention, but it was a wake-up call.
Gergela, who has had diabetes since childhood, later told his father they should sell the farm.
“I told him, ‘The reality is I’m not going to be able to do the work that you have done and for me it’s probably a good idea to do something else.’ So we farmed the next few years to get out of debt and we were able to sell the farm,” Gergela said.
He finished his degree at Stony Brook and went to work for the USDA in Riverhead. He’d been there two years when he was approached by a couple of farmers to apply for the executive director’s position at L.I. Farm Bureau.
“They thought I’d be good because I was outspoken,” he said.
He was hired 1988 and during the course of his 26-year tenure has advocated for farmers before legislative and regulatory bodies everywhere from the smallest village on Long Island to the halls of the Capitol in Washington D.C.
“He’s a fearless and tireless advocate for agriculture,” said State Senator Ken LaValle, a man Gergela describes as a mentor. “But at the same time he understands the importance of environmental stewardship.”
In his role at LIFB, Gergela was often at odds with NFEC and other environmental advocacy groups over issues such as upzoning or fertilizer and pesticide use.
“Some people say that an environmental group such as NFEC shouldn’t recognize a person or industry which adds to the nitrogen and pesticides found in our water,” the NFEC wrote in its announcement of the award last month, acknowledging the long-standing tension between farmers and environmentalists on Long Island.
“But the NFEC is also charged with protecting our way of life and farming has been an important part of that.” The statement credits Gergela with being open to listening to environmentalists and working with them on important matters, like the preservation of the former KeySpan site as state parkland and the establishment of farmers’ markets across the island.
“And when you still see and hear the names of farms like Wells, Wickham and Halsey, the tradition and history of our community, you see that an integral part of the fabric of the North Fork remains vibrant,” the organization said in the statement.
County Legislator Al Krupski and both North Fork supervisors, who presented him with proclamations, gently ribbed him about it.
“When I saw that the NFEC was honoring Joe I thought, wait— ” Krupski said, blinking his eyes and shaking his head to mimic his surprise. “I had to read it again.”
“Dick Amper couldn’t make it tonight, so he asked me to present a proclamation for him,” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell joked. “I’m going to hand you this envelope but everybody make sure you stand at least 500 feet away when he opens it to read it.”
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter recalled how, when he was first elected, he got into a dispute with Amper over a zoning issue in Wading River and left him a voice mail message “that wasn’t so nice.” Walter said “that person took the voicemail and mailed it to all the people of Wading River telling them what a dope I was.
“Joe came to my office and said, ‘You know, Sean, the farmers didn’t know what to make of you but when you left that voicemail, they decided that they like you better,'” Walter recalled to laughter.
“Joe is pragmatic, no matter what the situation is,” Walter said. “Not to have him here is a tremendous loss, not only to L.I. Farm Bureau but to Long Island in general.”
Gergela himself admitted he was a bit surprised by the honor and acknowledges that some of his battles with environmentalists were rough.
“I’m a lot different than when I started,” he said. “I was a young kid and very brash. I’ve learned from some really good people,” he said, singling out LaValle, Tom Twomey and Buzz Schwenk.
“I stood up for my farmers and always will…I’m not unreasonable and I get it about community and the greater good,” he said. As an example, he noted how a partnership between L.I. Farm Bureau and Island Harvest helps feed 350,000 people a day on Long Island. “Our farmers donate 3.5 to 4 million pounds of food to Long Island food banks each year, more than any county in the United States, right here on Long Island,” he said, drawing applause.
“We know we’re not alone in this. We’re all about what’s best for the community. We have environmental challenges and some are not easy ones,” he said, “like pesticides.
“Oh my God, the farmers use pesticides! The world’s going to end because you’re using pesticides! Do you know that baking soda is a pesticide registered by the federal government and N.Y. State? Why? It’s used as a home remedy as a fungicide on roses, of all things.
“How about chlorine? Our kids swim in it. It’s in the water we drink. We use it to wash our clothes. And it’s a registered pesticide.
“If you’re in New York City with rats running around your apartment are you going to call someone to take care of the problem or are you going to let them spread bubonic plague?
“What about deer? We tried a cull but it was unsuccessful,” he said referring to Southold’s effort to reduce the deer herd with hired sharpshooters. “At the end of the day, do you guys have a problem with tick disease out here? Anybody concerned about that?
Is anybody concerned about car accidents? Damage to your properties?” he asked. People complain about farmers using deer fencing because it’s ugly/
“Well, you don’t want me to shoot the freaking deer. You don’t want me to use a fence. What would you like me to do with them? They’re not bright enough to stay on your property. They they happen to be on mine. So how can I get them on yours?
“What about mosquitoes? Yes we don’t want to see wetlands destroyed, but the government’s duty to the greater good is to make sure we don’t have West Nile, encephalitis and all the other diseases spread by mosquitoes,” he said.
“I don’t know of anyone who goes out and says, ‘I’m going to spray today for the fun of it.’ It’s a serious thing and they take it seriously. They’re very well-trained to be able to use these materials,” he said.
“Seventy percent of the things found in the water are legacy. They are no longer used,” Gergela said. “Our water quality is getting better except for nitrogen. We have to do a better job of managing nitrogen loading,” he said, but the real problem is sewage. “Agriculture makes up about 17 percent of the problem,” Gergela said.
“I’m sick of people telling me there’s going to be a mandate. We don’t need any more laws.
We don’t need any more mandates or you’re going to cause the farmers to say, ‘You know what? Screw this. We’re already regulated to death.’ And they are going to sell out,” he predicted.
“You’re going to pick the low-hanging fruit of 500 farmers to solve the island’s groundwater problem? I don’t think so— not on my watch,” he declared.
Gergela said he’s working at the county and state levels on an agricultural stewardship program for Long Island.
“Instead of putting a mandate on farmers, we’re going to put the burden on state government to fund it,” he said. “We will not allow any more unfunded mandates.”
Gergela also urged elected leaders to figure out how to fund continued land preservation efforts.
“Where the hell is Gov. Cuomo when it comes to land preservation? New Jersey puts in $50 million annually, Pennsylvania $100 million. New York? Just $12 million statewide,” he said.
“We have to have an alternative to development. There’s still 20,000 acres not protected by easements.
The combination of increasingly stringent regulations and lack of funding to preserve farmland sets up a worrisome scenario, the farm bureau director said.
“We have to be very careful,” he said. “You don’t want to scare [farmers] into making bad decisions.
“Mark my words. You heard it here,” Gergela warned. “Over the next 10 years what I see is the “Hampton-ization” of the North Fork,” he said. “And that doesn’t serve anyone.”
Top photo caption: L.I. Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela with NFEC president Bill Toedter after Toedter presented him with the 2014 Paul Stoutenburgh Leadership Award. (Photo: Peter Blasl)