The sprouting of hydroponic farming on Long Island
Written by Erika Peters
Entering the hydroponic garden inside the Maryhaven Center of Hope in Yaphank feels a bit like entering a science lab. Thirty-nine futuristic towers of plants, including lettuce, kale, and mint, fill the room, surrounded in all directions by radiant fluorescent lights.
This way of growing produce is slowly cropping up in different farming operations on Long Island. Along with Maryhaven, Thera Farms in Brentwood is another site that uses hydroponics.
“I was landlocked,” Teddy Bolkas, owner of Thera Farms, said. “I had just under three acres of land, and I had a huge market demand. I had to figure out how to grow a lot of food in a small footprint.”
The dilemma led Bolkas to grow lettuce in a greenhouse hydroponically in addition to his traditional farming operation. He was able to produce 15,000 heads of lettuce a year, out of a 2,600 square foot greenhouse.
In a hydroponic system, plants grow without soil. Instead, they are grown with added nutrients in sand, gravel, or liquid.
“Where the sustainability [of hydroponics] is, is in the conservation of water,” Dr. Howard Resh, a pioneer in hydroponics research and author of seven books on hydroponic culture both for commercial growers and hobbyists, said.
“You use about 10 percent of the normal water usage to grow similar crops in soil in the field, because hydroponic greenhouse growing systems re-circulate the water. The future is in conservation of water, growing plants very efficiently in greenhouses where the environment’s controlled — and the product is really high quality.”
The basic premise behind hydroponics is to allow the plants roots to come in direct contact with the nutrient solution, while also having access to oxygen, essential for proper growth. Because farmers are able to control everything inside of the greenhouse, from the temperature to the moisture in the air, it makes for better control of the product, Bolkas said.
“The benefits of hydroponic lettuce is that there’s not washing involved, it’s cleaner — you’re not susceptible to mother nature. You’re controlling the microclimate and the vegetable are able to grow optimum. That’s great for simple produce, leafy greens.”
Bolkas said the quality of the lettuce he grows hydroponically is so good that a group of local restaurants reached out to him to buy his product during the summer season.
“The flavors are much better,” Brian Giordano, executive chef at the Oakdale Brewhouse, said. “It’s not grown mass produced, it’s on a farm where people are actually doing the work. It’s a better product.”
The Local, The Villager, and Lily Flanagan’s Pub — all located in Babylon — as well as the Oakdale Brewhouse in Oakdale, which is set to have its grand opening in May, jumped on board to support Bolkas’ lettuce production.
“Anytime we can do something to help a local business, we like to get involved.” Damien Farrell, owner of Lily Flanagan’s Pub, said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
“It’s just a no-brainer for us really, to support a local business, and get the best product available, close to our location,” Christopher Weiss, executive chef at The Local, said.
When it comes to retail stores, on Long Island, LI Hydro in Islandia is one of the few stores that sell supplies for and provides expertise on hydroponics locally, since 2006.
“It’s gone from a very kind of niche market, which was very small, to something that’s much more popular,” Adam Sussman, store manager of LI Hydro, said. “You see people who are avid gardeners, who typically have vegetable garden in their yard year in and year out looking to get into this.”
The method can allow for the harvesting of a larger amount of crops in bigger yields than traditional farming, Sussman said.
“For anyone who’s looking to provide themselves with the majority of their own food, if they can do it hydroponically and put in a little less effort and get a little more out if it, that’s something that really appeals to people,” he said.
LI Hydro supplies Maryhaven Center of Hope in Yaphank’s hydroponic gardening program within the Integrated Business Center, where staff and clients collaborate on the gardening as part of an array of projects providing work opportunities for those with disabilities.
“With our product, we’re able to supply some of our houses with produce,” Justin Fabrizio, production supervisor of the Integrated Business Center, said. “We’re selling at the Long Island Welcome Center, and we actually go to farmers markets on Saturdays and Sundays with some of the guys, and they help sell as well.”
“I think that it gives them a sense of independence,” Courtney Theisen, warehouse assistant and hydroponic supervisor at the Integrated Business Center, said. “They really love coming [to the hydroponics program] and it gives them a sense of fulfillment.”
Different forms of hydroponics exist, including aeroponics, which uses no growing medium at all. The roots of the plants are suspended and a nutrient-rich water solution is sprayed or misted onto the roots.
“There’s no one formula that’s going to work — as long as you know what you’re doing, as long as you have a good grower, you’re pretty much assured success,” Dr. Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist, ecologist, and emeritus professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University, said.
Despommier is the author of “The Vertical Farm: feeding the world in the 21st Century.” He founded the root for the idea of raising crops in tall buildings, known as vertical farming.
“That’s been the biggest issue – forget lighting, forget nutrient solutions, forget buildings, forget money – that’s not the problem anymore,” Despommier said. “The problem is finding people who are qualified to grow food indoors. That’s the biggest missing piece.”
Even though hydroponics requires a thorough knowledge of the process, the industry has come a long way, Erik Biksa, editor of Grozine Hydroponics Magazine, said.
“What I’ve seen in the industry is a lot of refinement,” Biksa said. “Making it so that anybody who has an interest in growing crops can do so fairly easily now, and far less expensively. You used to really have to want to grow hydroponics.”
For those looking to taste hydroponic produce for themselves, Thera Farms officially opened for the spring season on April 27, and Maryhaven will be selling their lettuce at the Port Jefferson Summer Farmers Market, held every Sunday at Jeanne Garant Harborfront Park from May 5 through November.