New agri-park facility opens in Calverton

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | J. Kings food service owner John King at the unveiling of the company’s new Calverton location on Friday, July 27.

While it might be a charming and nostalgic experience to pick up a head of lettuce from a North Fork farm stand, that’s not how people like to shop in the grocery store nowadays.

At least, according to the numbers.

“Sales of whole heads of lettuce at the store are down about 70 percent,” John King, owner of J. Kings Food Service Professionals Inc., explained Friday at the company’s new agri-park facility in Calverton.

“It’s because they want their lettuce and vegetables bagged and packaged for them.”

And that packaging and marketing component is where Long Island farmers have been at a great disadvantage as of late, according to Mr. King and officials at the Long Island Farm Bureau.

Mr. King hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday at the Holbrook-based food distribution company’s new Grapes & Greens plant on Sound Avenue, where he was joined by state and local government and business officials.

The 108,000-square-foot former Blackman Plumbing building will be used to store North Fork wine, locally caught fish and farm produce. J. Kings will also use the facility to cool, package and ship products it buys outright from local farmers.

Many stores, such as Texas-based Whole Foods Market, a natural and organic supermarket chain, wouldn’t carry Long Island goods specifically because of the appearance — for instance, if a product is not cooled down immediately after harvest, it can affect its look — or a lack of packaging, Mr. King said.

But Whole Foods will be selling Long Island goods now.

Packaging with barcodes also allows J. Kings to track produce back to its source in the event of a recall, Mr. King said, showing the 40 or 50 people in attendance a five-pack of pre-husked Long Island corn that his company already sells to Meat Farms locations on Long Island.

Food storage services at Grapes & Greens will begin in about two weeks, but Mr. King said the produce-cutting and packaging operation, which will occupy a 12,000-square-foot corner of the building, probably won’t be up and running until December. In the meantime, J. Kings is maintaining 24-hour operations at a smaller processing facility in Bay Shore.

The agri-park project, which will eventually include a string of large freezers and at least one large hydro-freezer — which can cool produce within minutes instead of days — received a $500,000 grant from the governor’s regional economic council initiative.

Read the complete story in the Aug. 2 edition of the Riverhead News-Review.