From bok choy to wine, Long Island agribusiness booming Suffolk County leads New York in wholesale value of crops


CALVERTON, N.Y. - With the push of a button, Jack Van de Wetering, the largest producer of greenhouse plants in the New York metropolitan region, can rotate his entire crop of 10 million plants in just one hour.

"At the height of the season, we've got about 20 acres inside our greenhouses," Van de Wetering said. "We move them inside and out on a mechanized system of wheels and trolleys, enabling us to produce three to four times more than in the old traditional greenhouses."

Van de Wetering, whose father, a Dutch seed grower, came to the United States after World War II, has become a leader in the agricultural revolution on Long Island, enabling Suffolk County to expand its role as the largest producer of agricultural products, based on wholesale value, of any county in New York state.

His sprawling Green Acres farm here on the rural North Fork of Long Island, just north of the end of the Long Island Expressway, includes 40 acres of greenhouses and research buildings and produces 65 million plants a year.

While Long Island was once known primarily for its potatoes and ducks, it now produces a variety of products, from wines and specialty foods to bok choy (Chinese cabbage) and other Asian vegetables sought by the region's growing Asian population.

"There is no county in New York state, or possibly in the United States, where agriculture is more diversified than Suffolk County," said William Sanok, an agent with the Suffolk-Cornell University Cooperative Extension Association. "It's not just potatoes and Long Island duckling anymore, but a competitive world in which farmers have been forced to produce a wide variety of high-return crops employing innovative technology."

He said that all this innovation was taking place on the eastern two-thirds of Long Island.

Despite the pressure to turn yet more of the rural East End into vacation and year-round housing, the state's agricultural census indicates that Suffolk continues to increase its agricultural output. The total value of production rose from $93 million in 1982 to well over $160 million in 1995, when the last such census was taken. The census being taken this year is expected to show even more growth, officials said.

Suffolk's farm industry generates 8,000 jobs and contributes a quarter of a billion dollars to the local economy, county officials said.

1995 receipts $146.4 million

The 1995 cash receipts for crops alone totaled $146.4 million, including $17.7 million for vegetables, $3.8 million for fruit, $110.5 million for nursery and greenhouse plants and $14.8 million for field crops. Livestock and poultry receipts totaled $13.6 million, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

While potato acreage has dropped from 19,000 acres in 1982 to around 6,000, vegetable production has remained steady at around 8,000 acres. Vineyards, rare in 1982, have grown to nearly 2,000 acres. And while total farm acreage, measured at 50,000 in 1982, has dropped to around 30,000, productivity and the wholesale return per acre has increased, Sanok said.

Over the last three decades, farmers have been pressured by higher costs for land, labor, taxes, and energy. They have also been affected by new laws intended to protect Long Island's environment and underground supply of drinking water. Many duck farmers chose to close down rather than install expensive sewage treatment equipment to process duck waste to reduce the pollution of nearby bays.

To beat the high cost of energy, Van de Wetering joined forces with Richard Harrison, a former engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory in nearby Upton, to reinvent the greenhouse.

They designed a lightweight aluminum grid on wheels that moved all the plants in and out of the greenhouse at will, and robots to plant the seedlings. These and other innovations enable them to produce three times as much as the traditional greenhouse.

Dr. Andrew Novakovic, professor of agricultural economics at the Cornell University School of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said: "What's going on on Long Island is really just kind of an acute case of what's happening elsewhere in New York, the Northeast and the rest of the country."

The success of Suffolk farmers in finding their own niche in a changing marketplace, combined with a growing appreciation among county officials of the value of maintaining the East End's rural character, led to the adoption in 1974 of Suffolk's Farmland Preservation Plan.

10,000 acres preserved

Since then, the county has placed approximately 10,000 acres into permanent open space agricultural land, said George Proios, assistant Suffolk County executive for environmental affairs. The plan's ultimate goal is 20,000 acres of protected farmland.

The preservation program was among the first in the United States and has become a source of pride among agriculture officials on Long Island and in Albany.

"We see Suffolk County as a terrific role model for any XTC community that is trying to preserve and protect is agriculture industry," said Pete Gregg, spokesman for the State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

"The fact that Suffolk has been able to do so well, despite pressures from development and other sources, says a great deal about its farm friendly attitude and actions," he said.

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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