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Executive Suite: Joseph Gergela, Calverton

Joseph Gergela has been lobbying for farmers for

Joseph Gergela has been lobbying for farmers for 25 years. (Oct. 25, 2013) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

There's a reason so many picturesque swaths of farmland still exist on Long Island, despite the rising cost of real estate and taxes. The Long Island Farm Bureau's Farmland Preservation Program has helped many farms stay in business. For 25 years, Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Farm Bureau, has been lobbying for farmers.

The son and grandson of vegetable farmers, he grew up in Jamesport and later ran his own farm. After the blizzard of 1982 froze his crops and he was diagnosed with diabetes, he earned a degree in public policy at Stony Brook University and worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years later, he took the job at the Farm Bureau. Gergela, 57, still owns a winery.

How was the wine season?

The weather has been so excellent .?.?. Long days, moderate temperatures and a lot of sun on the vines as they ripen.

What's going on at Long Island farms right now?

It's been a beautiful fall. There's a lot of retail agricultural tourism -- apple and pumpkin picking, wineries, activities with the kids. The weather favored potatoes, and the fall crops are cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage.

How does the Farmland Preservation Program work?

When a farmer says, "I want to retire. I don't have children to take over the farm, but I don't want to see the farmland converted to housing," they go to the county, and if the county thinks it's a good parcel, they'll make an offer. It's a perpetual easement. It keeps land available for the future, because that land can only be used for farming purposes.

How did it come about?

The LI Farm Bureau started the first farmland preservation program in the United States, in the 1970s; the purchase of development rights is [now] widely used across the country. It started with Talmage Farm in Riverhead. It's something we're very proud of.

What are your top concerns for farmers?

Farmers are becoming a smaller percentage of the population, and while people recognize that we need food, there's less understanding about the plight of farmers. Farmers are getting regulated out of the business .?.?. and 37 percent of fruit and vegetables are imported today. We need better policy to keep our farmers farming.

Why are you lobbying for immigration reform?

We want an agricultural visa program to allow foreign workers to work in the United States for the season and then be able to go home to their country of origin.

What are the biggest farms on Long Island?

DeLalio Sod, DeLea Sod, Lewin Farms (potatoes), Fosters Farm (potatoes), Kujawski (potatoes and grain) and Pindar Vineyards (owned by the Damianos family).

What can the average citizen do to help farmers?

Buy local.

Corporate snapshot

Name: Joseph M. Gergela, executive director of Long Island Farm Bureau Inc. in Calverton

What it does: Lobbies at the local, state and federal level for the agriculture industry

Employees: 2 full time; 1 part time

Revenue: $400,000

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