The national headlines early on in the pandemic about farmers facing plummeting demand dumping milk and crushing eggs, while sick workers forced the closure of meat processing plants around the country could not be more distant from the reality experienced by farms on the East End, most of which are vegetable operations or small enough meat processors to enable safe operations.
Vegetable growers had not yet begun their spring planting when the lockdown went into effect, and many farm stands had not yet opened for the season. But agriculture is an essential business, and as it awakened here from its winter slumber, many farmers had already had a couple months to prepare to reopen safely.
But there are still some big unknowns for stand-out Long Island agricultural products. Winery tasting rooms, which are not deemed essential during the state shutdown, as of this writing still have some time to go before they can reopen, and the potential effect on agritainment operations, which depend on large crowds who converge on corn mazes, apple orchards and sunflower fields, are still unknown.
“All of the farmers are working very hard to put in safety measures to make sure people are safe, with distancing and disinfecting at farm stands and workers separated with social distancing,” said Long Island Farm Bureau Administrative Director Rob Carpenter. “It’s going to be a big learning curve for farmers to manage their work force and to deal with new rules and regulations.”
The enormous changes the global pandemic has forced on industries worldwide has taken its toll, but New York farmers were already expecting a tough season, due to minimum wage increases and new state Department of Labor requirements that farm workers be paid time and a half for overtime if they work more than 60 hours per week.
Many farm operators here pushed back against these changes brought on by the Farm Labor Fair Practices Act, which was signed into law by the state last year, saying it would force them to cut the hours of laborers, who might seek work in neighboring states that do not require overtime pay.
The new requirements went into effect at the beginning of this year.
“In the best of times, this would have been difficult to deal with,” said Mr. Carpenter, who said many farmers he’s spoken with are looking to make their operations more efficient so they can do work with fewer employees.
“Farmers are price takers, rather than price setters for their product,” he said. “It’s very difficult to pass on the increased costs. The buyers can buy from Canada or Mexico or wherever they can get the cheapest price for their product.”
The solution to this conundrum is simple: buy local produce at farm stands, where the individual farms receive every penny you spend.
“Locally grown products have much less carbon footprint than those brought in from all over the world. It helps the environment,” said Mr. Carpenter. “It also has a better flavor than products grown and prepackaged.”
Mr. Carpenter said the Farm Bureau has been working with Suffolk County to distribute personal protective equipment to farm workers, and many farms are maintaining a self-quarantine for everyone working within their operations.
Vineyards, along with other agricultural operations, have been under cultivation throughout the shutdown — nature doesn’t shut down for pruning or training dormant vines.
But the hospitality side of the business has been shuttered with the rest of the economy, and Long Island Wine Country President Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards says tasting rooms will likely open later in the state’s reopening process. Long Island was about to enter Phase 1 of reopening as The Beacon went to press.
“We’re permitted to continue to sell wine takeaway. Only on premises consumption was shut down,” he said. “Curbside pickup had been, overall, going fairly smoothly. People are looking to get out of the house and go to a winery,” even if they can’t have a tasting.
“The number one setback by far for the wineries is restaurants, which have taken the biggest beating,” said Mr. Massoud. “The restaurant business for local wines has completely evaporated.”
Wineries that depend on weddings to keep their business model afloat have also been hit hard, he said.
But it isn’t all bad news. Local wines have been selling better than hotcakes at liquor stores, which are also doing brisk business. And vineyards that have longstanding wine clubs have been able to continue to engage their members.
But in-house tastings must return in order for vineyards to pull through for the long haul.
“Obviously, you can’t taste wine with a mask on,” said Mr. Massoud. “It’s more than likely we will recommend protocols to adhere to. People would need to wear a mask, other than while seated at a table, and they would be able to remove it when they’re with the group the with. There may be a limit to how many people can be seated at a table.”
Mr. Massoud said he expects the state will issue guidance for tasting rooms similar to the guidance for restaurants in terms of reduced seating capacity.
“There’s definitely a lot of thought being given to just serving outside,” he said.
Mr. Massoud said that at his own wineries, Paumanok and Palmer Vineyards, they are planning to open for tastings outdoors only, and only by appointment.
Mr. Carpenter, of the Farm Bureau, said he’s also concerned about shellfish growers — aquaculture is regulated similarly to agriculture in New York.
The North Fork in particular has a burgeoning oyster farming economy, which has also been hit hard by restaurant closures, though Southold Town’s move last year to allow roadside stands to sell farmed shellfish has proven fortuitous.
“People growing oysters and baymen rely on restaurants, and the commercial fishing industry also relies on restaurants quite a bit,’ said Mr. Carpenter. “They’ve been put at a standstill for the time being while all this works out. They have a lot of product in storage, and what happens when they start growing new crops and their cages are filled with new oysters?”
Again, said Mr. Carpenter, the solution to many of these issues is for people who live here to try to buy locally produced food as much as possible.
“Suppose this was a food crisis or distribution channels had been disrupted and trucks could not come to Long Island, if there was a hurricane, quarantine, or the president said we aren’t going to get imports,” he said. “Isn’t it important to have agriculture here on Long Island to feed the population? Keeping growers growing is almost a homeland security issue.”