Joe Gergela, whose family's struggle with farming on Eastern Long Island helped turn him into a forceful advocate for agriculture for the past 26 years, will retire at the end of the year as executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
As the voice for farmers and agriculture on Long Island, Gergela, 58, has clashed with elected officials and environmentalists on issues including how to spend land preservation money and how to reduce pesticide and nitrogen pollution in groundwater.
Most recently, he orchestrated the efforts to bring in federal sharpshooters to kill hundreds of deer on Eastern Long Island.
Elected officials, allies and his opponents said Gergela has been an effective advocate, making the Long Island Farm Bureau one of the most powerful forces in East End politics.
"I'd characterize Joe as extremely influential, one of the more influential advocates on the East End," said Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor).
"He's a bulldog," said Lee Foster, whose family grows vegetables in Sagaponack and has long been active in the farm bureau.
Environmentalists said Gergela's clout, which he often wielded with a temper, has blocked progress on major policy issues for Long Island, particularly on efforts to improve water quality.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said the farmers "come off as an 'aw shucks,' unassuming bunch of folks engaged in daily acts of nobility, when in fact it's a big industry with a lot of clout."
Gergela, Amper said, "deserves a considerable amount of credit for projecting that image, and the farmers have gotten a lot as a result."
For example, the farm bureau has opposed efforts to reduce pesticide use on Long Island. A 2011 draft plan released by the state Department of Environmental Conservation called for an aggressive reduction in pesticide use on farms, at homes and by landscapers. But that plan was scrapped after Gergela lobbied to defeat that version, he and environmentalists said.
"He killed the Long Island pesticide management plan. There's no doubt about that," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment and a candidate for State Senate.
"Joe was a great advocate for the farmers," she added. "I wish he could've been more sensitive to drinking water and coastal water protection needs and work with us, collaboratively."
Esposito said Gergela would often take policy pushes as personal attacks on farmers. "He would make it more of an emotional issue, rather than a pragmatic issue," she said.
Gergela said farmers care about water quality, but also bristle at mandates.
"It's easy from the outside to tell us what to do," he said. "But these families, it's all they have left. They've got everything in these farms."
He grew up a farm boy
That belief comes from Gergela's growing up in Jamesport, working land with his father and grandfather.
Filling a tractor-trailer with 90-pound crates of cauliflower is, as Gergela calls it, "man-breaking work."
After graduating when he was 17 from what is now Bishop McGann Mercy High School in Riverhead, Gergela attended St. Bonaventure University, a private Franciscan Catholic college in Western New York, for two years but dropped out in 1975. He wasn't ready for college work, he said, and his father needed his help farming 90 acres they owned and another 100 acres they leased in Jamesport and Aquebogue, where the family grew potatoes and vegetables.
"A typical Long Island truck farm," he said, with his grandmother running a farm stand on the main road.
Gergela said farming can be rewarding work, but there's also pain in the bad years.
In 1982, Gergela walked into a barn to find his father, Joe Gergela II, alone after a night of drinking Polish brandy. It had been a bad year for the potato crop. There was an April snowstorm, and torrential rains in June -- 13 inches in a week -- washed away all the fertilizer. The family was $250,000 in debt.
"My dad was contemplating doing something," Gergela said of that night in the barn, tearing up and declining to go into more detail. He said his father told him, "It's getting to be more than I can bear."
Gergela drove his father home, and the next morning told him: "We have to do something else."
The next year was the last time the family grew potatoes; in 1987, Gergela and his father sold their land to another farmer. The following year, Gergela became executive director of the farm bureau.
David Calone, chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, called Gergela "an icon" of Eastern Long Island. "He's done tremendous work over the years," Calone said.
There are about 30,000 acres of farmland in Suffolk County, roughly a third of which is preserved or protected, an accomplishment that came while Gergela led the farm bureau.
"We wouldn't have what we have now without his effort," Calone added. "I don't know if the agricultural industry would be as vibrant as it is today without him."
Gergela said declining health led to his decision to step down at the end of the year. He has had diabetes since childhood, and a series of heart attacks in 2010 and 2011 resulted in kidney failure. In 2012 he received a kidney donated by his younger brother John, who lives in Middle Island.
Gergela has sold his house in Manorville, and he and his wife, Donna, plan to move to Florida, where their daughter, son-in-law and grandson live.
Gergela said he has found himself losing his temper, even with colleagues he respects, because he's worn down by age and illness.
"That's what's telling me it's time to move on to the next chapter," he said.