Most Long Island farms have operated and even prospered during the coronavirus pandemic as the demand for their fresh fruits and vegetables has increased, experts say, but wineries with state-shuttered tasting rooms haven't shared in the prosperity.
The lockout at wineries is set to change this week as Long Island prepares to enter Phase Two of reopening, allowing restaurants and bars to operate with outdoor seating. Most Long Island wineries have plenty of outdoor seating and are preparing to open Wednesday with masks for all employees, socially distanced tables, hand sanitizer and strict limits on entering indoor facilities.
"As long as the weather is good, that's good news for us," said Kareem Massoud, president of the Long Island Wine Council and winemaker for the family-owned Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue. Most wineries in the council are also planning to open during the week, Massoud said, including Paumanok's Palmer Vineyard. Customers are advised to make a reservation before venturing to the winery, where they'll have their temperature taken before entering outdoor seating areas.
"We are planning to limit groups to no more than six people" per table, he said.
Traffic to North Fork farmstands and markets has increased in recent weeks and months as shoppers look to buy not only spring vegetables but plants and flowers largely cultivated on the East End, said Rob Carpenter, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, which advocates for the industry.
“The impact to the fruit and vegetable growers has been pretty positive because people want fresh, locally grown product,” said Carpenter, noting the local farm community has been “considered essential since day one.”
The early influx of people to the East End from New York City and other areas also helped with local sales, he said. “A lot of people came out and hunkered down on the East End, and some who don’t want to go to grocery stores are instead going to local markets,” said Carpenter.
Ripples from potato chip maker
But not all farms are prospering. Sidor Farms in Mattituck, a potato grower, has seen a 50% drop in the market for its North Fork Potato Chips, because of dropoffs in sales to distributors who market to hotels, cafeterias, airports and other specialty or retail markets shuttered by the pandemic.
“We lost probably half our business because hotels and small markets in the city closed up,” said family co-owner Carol Sidor. “Whether those come back, we don’t know.” Working the fields, and the costs of operating a farm, continue unabated, she added. “Potato planting season has come and gone,” she said. “You can’t plant potatoes too late.”
Wineries with tasting rooms have been particularly hard hit by the COVID 19-related shutdown. Curbside sales, direct shipping and even takeout bundles of wine and local food products have allowed some wineries to maintain a level of sales during the shutdowns. But it’s nowhere near where it needs to be as spring winds down and summer looms.
“We’ve lost a tremendous amount of business,” said Anthony Sannino, whose family-owned and operated Sannino Vineyard opened a new tasting room and winery in Cutchogue just last year. He has worked with local oyster growers and others to create bundles of local farm products, and he’s marketed discounted wine to his wine club members, but it’s no match for the traditional model. “We’re getting sales but obviously not what we would be doing in the tasting room,” he said.
Sannino welcomed the prospect of opening this week. "We're going to take advantage of it," he said. "We can't stay closed any longer."
It’s not just loss of the tasting room sales that’s impacting some wineries. Others that do a portion of their business to regional restaurants have also suffered, Carpenter of the Farm Bureau said.
And it’s not just wineries that work with restaurants that have seen sales impacted.
Duck farm cutbacks
At family-owned Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, president Doug Corwin had to suspend most processing operations and temporarily lay off more than 40 workers in late March as COVID struck. One of his employees caught the virus, but has since recovered, he said.
Now, after a hiatus precipitated by a drop-off in restaurant sales, Crescent restarted hatching operations at the end of May, with the processing lines scheduled to open just after July 4. It won’t be the same as the pre-COVID days. Corwin said he’ll install Plexiglas barriers, erect a tent for more break space for workers, and take employee temperatures at the start of work. He’ll start with a force of around 40 employees, around a third less than before March. And rather than process the company's typical 20,000 ducks a week, the number will start at around 5,000 a week, Corwin said.
Volume could ramp up as restaurants open and demand increases, but Corwin said he believes it could be a while before eateries are at their former level of traffic.
“It’s going to be one to two years of huge struggle for the restaurant industry and suppliers like me,” he said. One problem is that there isn’t a huge grocery store market for ducks at retail right now, although growing that market is an option. Crescent already sells to locals like Miloski's Poultry in Calverton. Some wholesalers want to expand the market, Corwin said.
East End farmers who open their farms to visitors in the summer and fall are also beginning to wonder how things will change. Carpenter of the Farm Bureau said he’s hoping the state will offer some guidance for these “agritainment” operations, which offer hay rides, fruit and vegetable picking, and walks through corn mazes. The Sidors operate a sunflower maze in late summer and fall.
“At this point it’s not stopped, but we’re working with the state to figure out best practices and protocols for agritourism,” Carpenter said. “We’re hoping the state will have guidelines for corn mazes, for instance,” he said, but "nobody can predict what’s going to happen.”