Karen Rivara, the new president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, is the first woman to hold the post since the group was formed in 1955. She is also the first president whose farm is the water, where she raises oysters.
And, of those two firsts, she considers the recognition that aquaculture is just another form of farming to be far more significant.
Rivara says it shows that alternate farming is getting respect from more traditional farmers, and reflects dynamic changes in farming on Long Island, where thousands of acres of potato farms have been replaced by nurseries, wineries, greenhouses, sod farms, horse farms and corn mazes.
"We all have to pull together . . . we all have common goals," she says.
Mark Van Bourgondien, who operates a greenhouse in Peconic and serves on the farm bureau's board, says having someone who runs an aquaculture operation as its president reflects the changing nature of farming on Long Island.
"Farming on Long Island is always changing. Years ago, it was 90 percent potatoes, and then the vineyards came in. In Suffolk, more greenhouses moved out, and you had more interior agriculture. Way back when, oysters used to be harvested and farmed, then they died off, and now they're making a comeback . . . as an institution, the farm bureau encompasses all of agriculture."
Rivara, 54, of Southold, grew up upstate on the shore of Lake Erie and always wanted to be a marine biologist. Her oyster hatchery has been operating in the Peconic Land Trust's Shellfisher Preserve in Southold since 2003. It leases 275 acres of bay bottom off Southold and Shelter Island, and is a part of the Connecticut-based Noank Aquaculture Co-Op.
In 1992, Rivara started the Aeros Cultivated Oyster Co., named for the Greek god of love. (One of the people she was working with wanted the odd spelling.) They produce and sell the Peconic Pearls and Mystic Oysters brands at a production facility that used to be owned by the Shelter Island Oyster Co., which went out of business in the 1950s."It's like wines . . . people get to know specific brands for their taste," she said.
And while little is happening now -- the algae tanks are empty and the oyster seed has not yet spawned -- she is busy running a one-woman operation, preparing everything for January, when most traditional farmers have little to do.
That's when other workers will help launch her busy season, during which she plans to produce 15 million oysters, with seed so small you could easily hold a hundred or more in your hand.
When the Peconic Land Trust got the property, the only use it was zoned for was mariculture.
Rivara said the Shelter Island Oyster Company held its oysters and kept them from spawning by controlling the water temperature, so they would grow fat and juicy. It worked for decades, until environmental and market forces forced the business to shut down.She uses underground growing chambers to trick oysters into thinking it is March by raising the water temperature and getting them to spawn. It gives the seed time to grow -- they feed off algae she raises in a greenhouse -- and by the time spring arrives, they can be put out into the bay.
It takes an oyster two years to mature, and the early start allows an early harvest, she said.
Rivara keeps one eye on the machinery needed to run her operation and another on the environmental conditions in the bays. She also wants an early start, so her oysters are big enough to survive an outbreak of red tide, which can come with warmer weather.
It's a lot of work but a challenge she enjoys. "Not many people would do this. It's technical and tedious," she says.
But, she smiles when she shows off her dock, and the cages that oysters will be growing in next year. "If we didn't have aquaculture, you'd be looking at multimillion dollar homes here," she said.
Van Bourgondien said that even as farming grows more diversified and agritourism gets stronger, the farm bureau still has a job of explaining just what farming is all about. "We get hammered all the time from people who don't understand agriculture and what it takes to produce an agricultural product," he said.