Sound Avenue agri-park draws sizable first harvest

11/15/2013 7:00 AM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | J. Kings's operation manager Pat Dean in Riverhead in the climate-controlled warehouse.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | J. Kings’s operation manager Pat Dean in Riverhead in the climate-controlled warehouse.

Lyle Wells, owner of Wells Homestead Farms in Aquebogue, used to store his excess produce in a shed. He couldn’t control the humidity or temperature and would lose about 40 percent of his stored crop because of the conditions, he said.

But since September, Mr. Wells has used Grapes & Greens — a food storage and processing facility in Calverton owned by J. Kings Food Service Professionals — to store a total of 212,000 pounds of fresh butternut and spaghetti squash harvested from his farm.

He’s losing only 5 to 10 percent of the crop now, meaning there’s more to be sold – and more profit to be made.

“It doesn’t take long [for the money] to add up really quickly,” Mr. Wells said.

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Wells Homestead Farms is one of “dozens” of farms and six wineries from across the North Fork to use the facility since it opened for business this harvest season. And although the plant’s food packaging operations aren’t quite ready, its storage and refrigeration units have already made a “huge, huge difference” for local growers, said one participant, Jim Waters of Waters Crest Winery.

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“It’s been terrific,” he said. “It’s really opened up a lot of avenues and doors for us.”

“It’s been tremendously successful,” said J. Kings owner John King.

Before the facility’s cooling storage was up and running this year, J. Kings would pick up produce directly from farms and bring it to retailers for sale.

“If they just pick it in the fields and then bring it to Stop & Shop, the product gets warmer and warmer,” Mr. King said. “It was hot as hell when we were delivering it.”

As a result, he said, that produce wouldn’t last long on store shelves. But now, produce cooled at the new facility after being picked up at the farms will last about five days on store shelves.

The facility has 8,000 square feet of storage and holds about 100 pallets of produce.

The facility is also being used by vineyards to cool wines for storage, with about 600 pallets of finished wine on the premises. The wine or grapes can later be returned to the wineries or distributed to stores, Mr. King said.

Waters Crest in Cutchogue had been using a fellow wine-grower’s facility to store its excess wine and grapes. But that was only a short-term solution, Mr. Waters said. As the other company’s wine grew in popularity, the extra storage space began to run out, leaving Waters Crest with little room to grow. Thankfully, he said, Grapes & Greens came online at the right time — for him and others.

Smaller winemakers have been waiting for a storage facility they could use without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own storage areas, Mr. Waters said.

“We’ve been needing something like this for years,” he said.

The need for a processing facility was highlighted in a study completed in 2011 by the Long Island Regional Economic Development Committee.

Citing a need to spur agricultural development on Long Island, the study recommended the building of “a strong agricultural processing center, or enterprise park, that would … provide distribution, cooling and storage of produce, allow meat processing” and perform other functions.

The Long Island Farm Bureau secured a $500,000 grant from the governor’s regional economic council initiative to get the project off the ground.

The facility officially opened last year after the Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals upheld a controversial town building department permit for the property in June in the face of concerns about potential traffic and noise. But its operations were slowed down.

One neighbor, Austin Warner, filed a lawsuit against the Riverhead ZBA, as well as Mr. King and his company, to overturn the ZBA’s decision, claiming the ZBA violated state open meetings law and allowed false information when making its approval decision, among other alleged violations. In February, a state Supreme Court judge sided with J. Kings and the town, saying Mr. Warner submitted “no proof that the ZBA broke the law.”

Though the facility remained open throughout the legal battles, it was unable to get up and running in time for last year’s harvest, said Jim Alessi, Grapes & Greens’ director of agricultural services.

“By the time we got things going it was already into the fall,” he said, “Now we’re in position and it’s paying off.”

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said the facility is providing “critical” assistance for farmers to expand.

“You can’t be as large an agricultural area as eastern Suffolk is without having basic necessities met,” Mr. Walter said. “Processing and cold storage are two of those things.”

Still, many farmers aren’t using the facility just yet.

Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela said the plant’s potential advantages are slowly catching on with farmers.

“The word is starting to get out,” Mr. Gergela said, adding he expects more farmers to use the facility next year.

While the wine industry has already used the plant “extensively,” Mr. Gergela said, farmers will find the facility’s processing unit valuable now that new federal food quality regulations are being considered.

He estimates compliance with the regulations, which will set new standards for water quality, cleanliness and worker protection, would cost the average farmer about $30,000 in new equipment.

By storing their food at Grapes & Greens, farmers could avoid most of those costs, he said. In order to use the facility, farmers pay a one-time $300 fee to help offset costs incurred by the Farm Bureau in applying for the grant. Beyond that, farmers also pay a handling fee of $29 per pallet.

“As time goes on we expect the farmers are going to realize ‘Jeez, we can’t have all the special things the government wants us to’<\!q>” due to the costs, Mr. Gergela said, adding they will find a benefit in a shared facility.

As for food processing and packaging, Mr. King said the legal delays held up health department permits.

But Mr. King said he’s not entirely sure if the packaging component of Grapes & Greens will take off as originally envisioned.

J. Kings has been packaging food in Bay Shore, but found packaged produce didn’t sell on store shelves as well as company officials had hoped.

“Long Island produce is so much more expensive than other produce, so it’s kind of hard to package it,” Mr. King said.

But he’s not giving up on plans to add packaging operations to the Calverton facility, he said.

“It’s in our best interests to get this to work,” he said.

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