Suffolk County Farm Combats Many Challenges with Harvest Festival that Engages the Community

Whisper Vineyards sits across from Borella's Farm stand and is owned by the family

By Quari Alleyne and Daniel Marcillo

Suffolk County farmers have turned to various methods to keep embracing community engagement. Agritourism is an operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch and has been the most popular way farmers have drawn the attention of the community.

“When we open our farms up for people during harvest festivals or to pick their own we get our biggest showings from the community,” David Finks, owner of Finks Farm in Wading River, said.

According to an economic development study conducted in 2013 by the Suffolk County Department of Agriculture, 64% of Suffolk County farmers have engaged in agritourism of some kind. Harvest Festivals have been one of the key ways to engage people in farms.

“The festivals help the farm immensely and it always draws new eyes to the farm,” Vicky Fleming, farm administrator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, said. “Farms will continue to have their presence in their communities because families have the opportunity to pick with their own hands and have control of their produce.”

Borella’s Farmstand, a long-time staple in the Saint James community, hosted its 11th annual fall harvest festival this weekend in hopes of generating revenue and interest to maintain the multiple acres of land the farm sits on.

“Everybody’s buying stuff online and having it shipped directly to their house,” Steve Gallagher, who has owned the farm with his wife Laura for 37 years, said. “We’ll find another avenue that we’ll have to address as far as how to keep the word out to the people that the farm is still here and working.”

Suffolk County has historically generated the most agricultural revenue of any other county in the state since 1940, raking in nearly $243 million in 2007 alone.

“That’s what Long Island was based on back in the day, it was all farms, but to have a few of them left around is super important. That is our history and our heritage,” John Boyzok, a firefighter who is in his fourth year working at the farm, said.

According to the most recent Department of Agriculture Census. The recession of 2008 and superstorm Sandy in 2012 made it challenging to keep the farms going.

“People were not buying in the same way they had been in prior years,” Brian Funfgeld, his family owns Windy Acres Farm in Riverhead, said. “We had to adjust to the poor market and conditions that every other farm had to deal with as well.”

It is not always as easy as it seems for these farmers to maintain the farms and put these events together. According to a study done by the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development & Planning, Suffolk County farmers listed high production costs, high fuel costs, availability of farm labor, property taxes and extreme weather conditions and climate change as the top five challenges they face.

“Mother nature is your best friend or your worst enemy,” Gallagher said of the uncontrollable events that Borella’s experiences. “And this year she’s been devastating us with rain after rain after rain. So the field was pretty muddy, I spent most of the morning straightening it up so that nobody had too terrible of a trip.”

Farmers work countless hours because their farms are attractions to visitors. They provide the public fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown locally along with activities for the entire family.

“They [the community] supports the farm all the way through,” Gallagher said. “Through our annuals and perennials that we grow here the people just love that. They buy our tomatoes, our peppers, our broccoli. You’re in competition with the superstores, my products are 1000 times fresher and 100 times more nutritious.”

The festivals are a big reason why people continue to come back to different farms each year. Farms have been the backbone of Suffolk County since their beginning which is a reason why people return each year. In terms of market value, Suffolk County remains the best producer out of all counties in New York State.

“It [the festival] brings everybody together,” Jenn Harnett, a counselor at Nesaquake Middle School located directly next to Borella’s, said. “I feel like you get to meet people that you don’t really get to meet in the community, I have an advantage obviously because I work at the  school. I get to see a lot of my parents and students, which is nice.”