With the bright fall sun shining and lines of cars streaming east toward a seemingly endless orange ocean of pumpkins, it looks as if things were never better for local farmers.
But looks can be deceiving.
"The cost of farming has gone up dramatically in the past five years . . . maybe 500 percent," said Joseph M. Gergela III, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. "Fuel, farm chemicals, it's been astronomical."
Gergela said many farmers will clear a profit of just 1 or 2 percent when harvests are done.
East End farmers have responded to the bleak financial outlook by learning to sell the same thing over and over again without harvesting anything at all -- the farm experience.
Agritourism attracts visitors who want to find their way through corn mazes, take children to a petting zoo or go on a hayride. Farmers also make their crops more profitable, charging $1.50 or $2 for a roasted ear of corn instead of selling uncooked ears for 50 cents or a dollar.
Ed Harbes started learning that lesson in 1989, when he had his son, Jason, sit under a gazebo on the side of the road in Mattituck with their pet dog and ran a small farm stand. Then they started selling fresh tomato sandwiches and hot dogs, and fresh-pressed cider.
Later came the corn maze and the playground, the wine tasting bar, the hayride and the pick-your-own pumpkin field across the street. There is also an apple orchard and other offerings -- enough to require 200 acres of land.
The Harbes family has four separate maze adventures at three locations on Sound Avenue and on Main Road in Mattituck and Riverhead, and they get not only summer tourists but school group tours from both Nassau and Suffolk. "It's good to show them where their food comes from," Harbes said.
Because there are so many factors involved in agritourism, the industry is hard to define. The State Department of Agriculture keeps no agritourism statistics, but said it is becoming increasingly important.
"Farmers are relying on it more and more to help diversify their operations," said department spokesman Joe Morrissey.
Vicki Fleming, director of Suffolk's 4-H youth programs, has been bringing visitors for more than a decade to the county farm in Yaphank for fall events with petting zoos and corn mazes, and said that when she began almost no one else did it.
Now, Fleming added, dozens of farms have mazes, petting zoos and other attractions.
"You started to see it over the past four years," she said. "They're all over."