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Hamptons Life

Jul 10, 2017 10:35 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A 116-Year Old Business Looks To The Future of Growing on Long Island

The Long Island Cauliflower Association Farm & Garden Center. ALEXANDRA TALTY
Jul 10, 2017 10:56 AM

Sometimes, the last to leave the party cleans up.

The Long Island Cauliflower Association might be the last remaining agriculture store in the county, but business is booming for the 116-year-old company.

“We’re unique in that sense that [farmers] can get their seed, their plants, their fertilizers,” said John Bokina, CEO of the farm and garden center.

In the past four to five years, Mr. Bokina has seen a renewed interest in more organic and niche farming. “Remember, it was potatoes and cauliflower. Today it’s everything,” Mr. Bokina said. “Strawberries and blueberries to hops or barley for beer. You have to maintain all of that.”

Originally founded in 1901 by a group of farmers who were looking for a way to market cauliflower to New York City vendors, the association has gone through a few changes over the past century. During the mid-1900s, the association was an auction block in Southold and Riverhead for cauliflower, and then in the late 1980s, the group began its transition to what clients can see and expect today.

In the 2000s, the farm and garden center started selling fertilizer and grass seed to home gardeners, after deciding to pivot the business model once again to stay competitive. They also have a line of Long Island Cauliflower shirts and hats that are popular with the millennial set.

Describing it as the “best decision they’ve ever done,” Mr. Bokina said that the “cost of doing business in Suffolk County is astronomical.”

Similar to traditional farmers branching out into value-added crops like dried apple rings or honey sticks that offer more profit-per-acre, by building a robust consumer-facing business the Long Island Cauliflower Association is making sure it’ll be around for the next century. “We’ll always be here to serve agriculture,” Mr. Bokina said.

Thanks to the growth of these value-add industries, it has become feasible for a grower to operate on 7 acres, whereas 50 years ago only larger farms with hundreds of acres could turn a profit. However, these new types of farming requires new modes of distribution.

“With the newer generation you have to market your product,” said Mr. Bokina, who sees many small operations on the East End rely on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to build their businesses. “No one comes and knocks on your door and says, ‘I want cabbage today.’”

Since his time at the helm of the association, he’s seen agritourism—farm-based activities like U-Pick apples or hay rides—catch on. “That has brought the younger generation on. They can make a lot of money,” Mr. Bokina said.

But for the association, the breadth of crops on the East End makes the business a bit more tricky than 50 years ago, when most farmers used the same inputs. In addition to more traditional clients, the center now offers products for sod and grape growers, landscaping companies, greenhouses, school districts and home gardeners, among others.

“The hardest part is that you are continually adding a tremendous amount of products to your portfolio,” Mr. Bokina said. Continuing, he asked, “How do you manage that? It is not 20 bottles of this, it is two bottles.”

The younger, newer clientele also requires some more handholding when it comes to supplies. In addition to having shared knowledge from their families—sometimes dating back to the 1600s—traditional farmers are more likely to be focused on cheaper inputs rather than newer products, according to Mr. Bokina.

He said that price is “the one thing they feel that they can control … they can’t control fuel. They can’t control Mother Nature for water. They thought in years past you can control labor costs.”

In order to figure out what farmers need for the upcoming season, the group hosts a February meet-up with local growers. Mr. Bokina is also known to stop by farms along both the South and North Forks, to see how newer operations are expanding their businesses.

In addition to having a wide range of crop inputs, Long Island has quite temperamental weather as well as a long growing season. Similar operations in other parts of the Northeast are operational for only a few months of the year, while the Cauliflower Association opens up shop in March through the first freeze.

Originally from a farm family in Cutchogue, Mr. Bokina admitted that while Long Island might be famous for its cauliflower, sweet corn and tomatoes, his all-time favorite crop is the humble tuber. He said, “I’ve grown potatoes all my life.”

Although the recent popularity of cauliflower seems surprising—with some home chefs even going so far as to use the cruciferous veggie in their pizza—Mr. Bokina said that produce is always going in and out of fashion. “Everything goes through fads. A few years back it was kale. Then it was cauliflower. Who knows what it will be next.”

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