CUTCHOGUE, NY — In a heartfelt tribute, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski presented longtime Cutchogue farmer Tom Wickham with a proclamation Wednesday, honoring a prestigious award Wickham's Fruit Farm recently won.
Wickham's Fruit Farm garnered New York's top environmental award– the 2016 Agricultural Environmental Management, or AEM Award, said New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo last month.
Each year, the award honors the "outstanding efforts of a New York State farm to protect and preserve soil and water quality," a release said.
Wickham’s Fruit Farm is the first fruit farm and the first farm on Long Island to receive the accolade.
“New York leads the nation in preserving our most precious natural resources, and building a cleaner, greener state and our farmers are taking innovative steps to protect our land and water to share in that collective responsibility,” said Cuomo, congratulating Wickham’s Fruit Farm. "They are a testament to the ongoing efforts of our farms and our soil and water districts to ensure they are being good stewards of the environment.”
Wickham’s Fruit Farm was recognized, along with the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, during a ceremony at Empire Farm Days in Seneca Falls in August.
And on Wednesday, Krupski presented Wickham with a proclamation before the entire Suffolk County Legislature during their monthly meeting at the county center, in the Evans K. Griffing building in Riverside.
Krupski, himself a farmer, said he worked alongside Wickham, a former Southold Town supervisor and town board member, for many years during his tenure with the town as a trustee and town council member.
Wickham, who grows fruits and vegetables, Krupski said, leads in a way "that makes us all proud. The way he's managed his farm is a great example for all of us."
Wickham thanked the Legislature. "It's an honor for me to stand in front of of you and to have received this award from New York State," he said. "But it's even more important to understand the basis of that award and what it really represents."
The award, he said, was the result of a number of programs made available to farmers in Suffolk County, programs that Wickahm's Fruit Farm has embraced.
He thanked the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District and other agencies present for the programs they've implemented.
"All I really did, in a volunteer capacity, was pick some of the programs and put them in place," he said, adding that other farms have also availed themselves of the programs offered. "I'm not the only one."
The programs, Wickham added, are focused upon environmental preservation and provide benefits not just for farmers, but for the whole community.
Two examples, he said, displaying a device to those present, include a contraceptive for insects that prevents them from mating and breeding; a second program includes monitoring of insects in the fields by a representative of Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Both those programs, he said, result in a reduction of more than 50 percent of the spraying of insecticides on the farm.
In addition, underground tanks are being replaced; one is being replaced this week by the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, Wickham said.
"These programs would not be possible without the technicians and people who interact with farmers," and facilitate completion of paperwork and other administrative issues, Wickham said. "They provide an incentive for the next generation of farmers to move up to a higher level of farming. The benefits go to the whole community, not just to farmers."
On behalf of his son, Jonathan Wickham, whom Wickham said now owns Wickham's Fruit Farm, "I express my appreciation for this award and proclamation today."
After the proclamation was presented, Corey Humphrey, district manager of the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the award was "fantastic," and, as the first time the honor was bestowed in Suffolk County, the accolade was "long overdue."
Rob Carpenter, chairperson of the Soil and Water Conservation District's board of directors, thanked all in the agricultural community who have embraced the new technologies and said, "We owe them all a round of applause."
Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District Soil District Technician Sharon Frost said, of the award given to Wickham's Fruit Farm: "We're all so proud of Tom, for his accomplishments."
Seneca Falls ceremony
Last month, Wickham traveled upstate to Seneca Falls where he was the recipient of the prestigious award.
The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets Commissioner, the Empire State Potato Growers, and the American Agriculturist Magazine presented the award to Wickham, whose family has nurtured the land in Cutchogue for nine generations.
“The conservation practices we’ve put in place and that are so critically important would not be possible without the active engagement of a number of parties — from the NYS Departments of Agriculture and Markets and Environmental Conservation, Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, and of course, the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District. They have all provided great help and guidance in implementing projects that protect our land and the health of our community while improving our operation," Wickham said.
The Wickham Farm was one of the first 50 farms to receive an AEM comprehensive farm plan in 1999.
As early adopters of the principles of AEM, Wickham’s Fruit Farm has implemented several practices that protect ground and surface water, as well as other natural resources, and that have also improved the farm’s profitability, the governor's release said.
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For example, the Wickham family has participated in many cost-share programs and implemented conservation best management practices for the last two decades, including the district’s fuel tank replacement program, in which they have replaced three fuel tanks with environmentally sound tanks; the installation of a micro-irrigation system, which helps to conserve water throughout the farm; and the innovative installation of seasonal high tunnel that is being used to grow cherry trees.
The seasonal high tunnel is the first of its kind in the area, Cuomo said.
“The Wickhams have made good environmental practices a part of their daily life on the farm, and we congratulate them on their commitment to protect and conserve the quality of our soil and water. With support from the Suffolk County SWCD and other critical partners, the Wickhams have been able to implement progressive farming practices that are will be a model for generations to come," said Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball.
In addition, the farm has worked closely with the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, which provides technical assistance to advance agricultural environmental management practices within the county. The district uses the feedback to improve its own efforts for environmental management in agriculture.
Frost, who also attended the event, said the SCSWCD was proud to be the recipient of the 2016 NYS AEM Award.
"We are also very proud of Tom Wickham and his accomplishments as he has participated in the AEM program since 1999," she said.
The Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District has an agricultural environmental management program that has assisted over 278 farms since its inception.
The district focuses on assisting farmers with programs that help protect Long Island’s sole source aquifer, which provides drinking water to more than 2.7 million people.
The district has also successfully administered grant funding for programs such as fuel tank replacement, nutrient management planning, pesticide sprayer retrofits, and the installation agri-chemical handling facilities.
The AEM program aims to guide the district in assisting farmers in protecting the environment while meeting their economic goals.
The annual Agricultural Environmental Management Award is jointly sponsored by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, American Agriculturalist Magazine and the Empire State Potato Growers.
Award winners are chosen from nominees submitted by County Soil and Water Conservation Districts statewide. The first AEM award was presented in 2002; prior to that, the award was called the Ag Stewardship Award.
Paving the way forward
Reflecting on the award, Wickham told Patch, "The thing that's significant is that this is the first time they've selected someone from Long Island." In the past, the award has traditionally gone to upstate growers, he said.
Protecting the environment is critical on Long Island, Wickham said.
"On Long Island, what we need to do is to to prevent contamination of the groundwater. Our farm has adopted a number of practices that help to mitigate potential contamination of the groundwater," he said.
Those practices, he said, were put in place with the assistance of the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, who nominated him for the award.
Some of those practices, he said, including building a structure where pesticides are mixed for the sprayer so none are washed into the groundwater; rebuilding a dike, planting orchards with special grass to reduce runoff into local water bodies, micro-irrigation, utilizing slow release fertilizer, a reduction in pesticide spraying, and utilizing pheromones in orchards for mating disruption.
"Suffolk County is way out here, away from the rest of New York State. The problems we have are different, our type of agriculture is different, the cost structure of our farms is different. I was pleased that we were able to participate in the awareness process."
At the Seneca Falls event, Wickham said he spoke and outlined Suffolk County's major issues, which revolve primarily around preserving groundwater and the steps farmers are taking to try and deal with those concerns.
"Farmers tend to think of themselves as individualists and doing things on their own but we have, in Suffolk County, a first class team of agricultural support services," Wickham said.
Those groups include the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, he said.
"All of those focus as a team and each one provides support services to agriculture and to farmers like me — and, in particular, provide help with environmental issues," Wickham said.
Frost said Wickham was nominated for his advanced environmental practices. "He's really come a long way in implementing all these practices and reducing nitrogen," she said. "He's just done so many things to protect the ground and surface waters that surround his farm, it's amazing. He's a visionary."
She added that Wickham has worked diligently at environmental protection. "We're proud of Tom for all of his accomplishments — and for being a superior land steward."