Second-year North Fork farms and nurseries share growing pains and success stories

06/08/2017 6:00 AM |

In an area where some farm families measure their lineage in centuries, new North Fork agricultural operations are launching all the time.

From Wading River to Orient, a handful of startup farms and nurseries plant or sell their first crops each year.

They start off with a business plan and a dream, hoping to carve out their niche in the agricultural legacy of the North Fork.

As the 2017 “summer season” begins, we caught up with three different types of agricultural enterprises that launched a year ago to see where they are heading into their second seasons.

We found them all making adjustments — scaling back in some areas, expanding in others — to refocus their businesses for the future.

Lily’s Farm, Mattituck

Lily Dougherty-Johnson at her Mattituck farm. (Credit: David Benthal)

Farming has been in Lily Dougherty-Johnson’s heart — if not her blood — since she was a teenager working the cash register at Latham Farm Stand in Orient.

Now the operator of the eponymous Lily’s Farm, Dougherty-Johnson, 36, is among a group of new-age cultivators pursuing the dream of a life in agriculture.

Her experience is also particularly unique. Not only is she not from a farming family, but she doesn’t own agricultural land and she started her business on a very small scale. Lily’s Farm is not even her primary source of income. It’s a business she’s trying to figure out by simply making some money doing what she loves.

“I didn’t even know this was possible,” she said of her younger self. “But having a farm is something that was always in the back of my mind.”

It switched to the forefront several years back when she pursued an apprenticeship on a dairy farm in Massachusetts. It was seven months of backbreaking — but rewarding — work that changed her life’s focus.

“It wasn’t the type of work you would do long term, but I realized [farming] was something I could do for myself,” she said.

Dougherty-Johnson is now in her third year running her farm, which has changed locations in each of its seasons. She launched the business at a farm incubator in upstate New Paltz, raising a couple of dozen heritage breed chickens and growing some perennial herbs but dreaming of a bigger future.

This year, she’s moved from the Peconic Land Trust’s Agricultural Center at Charnews Farm in Southold, where she grew crops in 2016, to more of a homesteading operation off West Mill Road in Mattituck.

There, the Greenport resident leases space from the property owner for a small but diverse selection of row crops that includes fingerling potatoes and more niche products like edible flowers and orach greens — a warm season alternative to spinach.

And the chickens are now producing eggs in her backyard on Washington Avenue in Greenport. It’s there that she starts her days by 6 a.m., feeding her flock. Most days, she’s then off to the farm in Mattituck to tend to her crops along with the property owner and an apprentice who helps them both.

Last year Dougherty-Johnson sold her eggs and some produce at a pair of local farm stands, but this year she’ll likely sell most of her inventory to friends and neighbors and through social media. An issue she ran into a year ago was that without a full-time farm stand, many of the greens she grew couldn’t be sold quickly enough. She also says she was too ambitious, purchasing more seeds than she may have needed.

She’s now scaling back in a way that will help her better manage her time and expenses, but long term she still aims to try and make her business profitable.

Ideas for the future include forming a more permanent, long-term partnership with a landowner to grow her crops. She also aims to grow more perennial crops and products with a longer shelf life.

“This may never be my only source of income, but I do still believe there’s a way to make some money doing it,” she said.

Craft Master Hops, Mattituck

Hops grown on the North Fork. (Credit: Vera Chinese, file photo)

Pat Libutti and Marcos Ribeiro were having lunch in 2014 when the conversation turned to craft brewing and the fact that New York was offering incentives to farm breweries using ingredients sourced within the state.

Three years later, Libutti, a real estate developer by trade, credits that conversation with getting the two men started in the hops business.

“We saw that there were not enough hops farms in the state to meet the demand,” Libutti said Tuesday, taking a break from the workday to talk about the opportunity the business seized.

The operation is now impossible to miss, as you pass 1,000 poles — each over 20 feet tall and weighing about 600 pounds — raised along Route 48 in Mattituck. The hops they began growing there last year are already being used in beer being made across the East End and in other parts of the country.

Like so many local growers, Libutti and Ribeiro have encountered their share of challenges managing their business in its first two years. There is, of course, the weather. While this spring’s consistent rain is good for hops roots, that’s not the case for its leaves. But an even bigger obstacle to overcome was getting their farm ready in the first place.

The 20-acre property had been the site of an illegal dumping operation under a previous owner and over a two-month period last year about 6,000 cubic yards of junk was hauled off the property and more than 6 million pounds of compost was generated.

It wasn’t until then that the site could begin to take shape as the largest hops growing operation in Suffolk County and one of more than a half-dozen North Fork farms cultivating that particular crop.

But it’s not just the scope of the pair’s operation that sets it apart from similar businesses in the region, it’s also the process they follow.

Craft Master Hops is a full-service farm using organic practices.

“We not only grow, harvest and dry the hops ourselves, but we also pelletize and package the product,” Libutti said. “A lot of brewers are pleasantly surprised by that — and that such a decent-sized hops farm exists on Long Island.”

They also employ techniques they say will set their product apart in terms of flavor, by air drying without using heat and by pelletizing their crop immediately rather than baling it. This method, which they’ve dubbed their “flavor-loc process,” takes longer and is more expensive, but keeps certain essential oils from escaping the hops.

“It’s also one thing that distinguishes us from a lot of bigger farms that can’t do it this way because of the volume they produce,” Libutti said.

This year, they leased additional farmland off Oregon Road and have begun to grow 20 acres of barley, putting them slightly ahead of their original timeline for getting into beer’s other essential ingredient.

The feedback they’ve received about the first year’s crop has been glowing, Libutti added. One brewer, Peak Organic of Maine, used Craft Master Hops exclusively in its New York State of Mind IPA release this year.

As they continue to focus on the flavor, the growers must also work toward increasing each season’s yield. The goal is to be able to produce 1,900 pounds of hops per acre by year four, but only about 35 percent of that in this second year. This means about a decade before the pair can recoup their investment.

The business takes a lot of energy and patience. Libutti said he’s made it his primary focus and it will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future. The operation has also seen him develop some new habits.

“I’m much more of a weather-watcher than ever before,” he said with a chuckle.

Leannes Country Gardens

Leanne Powers, center, inside one of the greenhouses at Leannes Country Gardens along with staffers Sharon Lopez, left, and Rosa Antunes. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

For Leanne Powers and her husband, Edward, the goal was to become police officers. Both were pursuing criminal justice degrees when an opportunity arose they felt was too good to pass up.

Mr. Powers’ aunt Ellen was retiring from a retail nursery operation that sold plants and flowers grown at Jamesport Greenhouses on Herricks Lane, a wholesale operation run by Edward’s parents.

Mr. Powers is part of the third generation of the Jamesport Greenhouses family, but for his new bride, this direction was a more dramatic change from the career she’d envisioned.

“Then I got around the business last year and realized, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I’m supposed to be doing,’” said Ms. Powers, a Riverhead native.

While her husband helps his parents in the wholesale production end of the business, Ms. Powers, 24, runs the retail operation now named for her and located directly east of Lewin Farms.

The first year for Leannes Country Gardens was about getting assimilated, she said. This year has been about making improvements to the business.

The couple spruced up the entrance to make the inventory more visible from Sound Avenue and added signage that seems to be catching customers’ eyes.

“You’ll see cars slowing down as they pass by and then they stop and turn in just before passing it,” Ms. Powers said. “They see the flowers hanging everywhere and I think they find it very inviting.”

While this spring has been a particularly rainy one on the North Fork, warm weekends like the one that just passed have led to an uptick in business. While last year was drier, some of the season’s early rain came on weekends.

On Monday, Ms. Powers and staffers Rosa Antunes, who had worked for Mr. Powers’ aunt, and Sharon Lopez, Ms. Powers’ longtime friend, were busy restocking their main retail greenhouse after inventory disappeared over the busy weekend. Hanging baskets are the most popular item the business sells, but they also sell a great many flats, Ms. Powers said, noting that some similar businesses have discontinued flats sales.

The three employees said they’re seeing a lot of repeat customers, which Ms. Powers views as a sign of success. Hearing from some of those customers, who send her photos showing how they used her flowers and plants on their properties, has become her favorite part of the job.

While Leannes Country Gardens closed in November last year and didn’t reopen until April, the nursery will remain open through the holiday season this year, focusing on wreath sales and other decorative offerings to complement the tree sales at Lewin next door.

A long-term goal for the couple would be to begin growing at the Wading River property and not just bringing inventory in from Jamesport.

“We have what we need to do growing here and I think that would be a real nice thing to do,” Ms. Powers said.

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