Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Agriculture Department, came out Wednesday to the Harbes Farm in Mattituck to see how it had changed the nature of its business from agriculture to agri-tourism — with rides for children, a corn maze, a wine-tasting barn and a dozen other activities along with its U-pick pumpkin field.
Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), who accompanied Merrigan, talked about the need to increase federal aid for farmers who are facing higher costs each year in producing their traditional crops.
Merrigan said one business innovation discussed during the visit — having local farms sell their crops to local schools — is being looked at by the USDA, and that she expects the first round of national grants to help farms sell their products to schools should be going out by the end of the year.
Farmers pointed out that schools are closed in summer, when they are growing and harvesting the most crops. USDA grants would be aimed at finding ways to preserve foods at the end of the growing season, then shipping them to schools when they are needed.
The Harbes family farm was picked for the tour because it has expanded into a number of areas to attract tourists over the years.
Ed Harbes said that he was following the family tradition 20 years ago, growing potatoes on the farm on Sound Avenue, when he and his wife put up a 14-by-14-foot roadside gazebo where his son, Jason, could sit with the family dog and sell fresh corn and lettuce.
Roasted corn later proved to be a big attraction, as did fresh tomato sandwiches. Then came the farm stand, and fresh-pressed cider, and the pony rides.
“Have you ever been to an amusement park?” Harbes asked. “What if it just had a Ferris wheel, or a hot dog stand? You have to put a number of things in to attract people.”
Above: A past Country Fun Day at Harbes Family Farm and Vineyard in Mattituck.