Roots run deep in many North Fork farming families. But for one such family dating back to the 19th century, those roots aren’t necessarily anchored in soil.
Gabrielsen Farms in Aquebogue began selling hydroponically grown lettuce in early December, marking its foray into the field of growing crops entirely in water instead of dirt.
Owner Carl Gabrielsen said the operation has traditionally devoted its seven acres of greenhouses to ornamentals, which meant that space went unused during the offseason. In addition, as numbers show demand for Suffolk County-grown flowers fell by over 25 percent between 2007 and 2012.
Now, however, Gabrielsen Farms has found a way to put the water filtration system that’s already in place there to good use year round. By adding a heat-retaining plastic cover to the trays that typically hold flowering plants, they’ve been able to produce and sell thousands of heads of hydroponically grown lettuce each week.
“Most [North Fork greenhouse growers] stay empty for six months, so we’re utilizing that,” Gabrielsen said. “For guys like me, it’s an ideal fit.”
To date, Gabrielsen is perhaps the only floriculture farmer in the area who also uses his space for hydroponic produce. But pointing to an increase in demand for local fare, and the possibility of someday providing produce to local schools year round, he says the opportunity in the marketplace is there.
Van de Wetering Greenhouses president Walter Gravagna said his Jamesport company — which farms more than 20 acres under glass — just recently started using its indoor space in the offseason when they aren’t growing flowers.
But Gravagna still grows his peppers in soil, not water. Upfront costs, he said, have kept him from investing in the filtration system necessary to go hydroponic at the large operation.
A basic filtration system for small-scale hydroponic farming, according to Gabrielsen, can go for around $10,000 — and he said the higher-end filter at his operation cost him $15,000. Initially, he was producing 250 heads of lettuce a week, but quickly built up to 3,000 and ended the season selling 4,500 heads of lettuce per week, mostly to Best Yet Market in Riverhead and a few local restaurants.
One of those restaurants is the Cooperage Inn in Baiting Hollow. Its head chef, Ricky Rodriguez, said that even though a salad made from greens grown locally rather than in California might cost a dollar or two more in the winter, it’s well worth it.
“You can’t compare to what we get from anywhere else this time of year,” he said.