Surrounded by fresh corn and other fruits of the East End summer harvest, elected officials gathered in Calverton for a ribbon cutting of a new agricultural food processing facility that they say will open the doors of opportunity for local farmers competing in an international market.
The ceremony came after a gathering held at the site in June, when John King, owner of J. Kings Food Service Professionals, Inc., a food service company, 2711 Sound Avenue, the 108,000 square foot site of the former Blackman Plumbing Supply business.
On Friday, members of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council joined with representatives from the Long Island Farm Bureau (LIFB), J. Kings, Inc., and the fishing and winery industries to announce the establishment of the agri-park in Riverhead.
Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy lauded the initiative, and applauded King, whom he said took an "extraordinary step," in creating a public/private partnership that will benefit the agricultural industry in economically challenging times.
The creation of the new facility, Grapes and Greens, was supported by a $500,000 grant from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Regional Council initiative.
"Agriculture is a staple of Suffolk County’s economy. This project will help local family farmers expand their operations while providing neighboring businesses with locally grown produce,” said Duffy.
Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said agriculture has been identified as one of the top five economic engines in New York State. The new facility, he said, will help local farmers to process and refrigerate produce for regional distribution. The Long Island Farm Bureau, Long Island Wine Council, and possibly, seafood businesses will be able to utilize the site for food processing and cold storage.
"The best farmland preservation we know is for farmers to be profitable," Gergela said.
King hopes to promote value-added opportunities, chopping and cutting up produce to appeal to a new demographic of customers, such as working mothers who hope to purchase pre-packaged vegetables for easier and quicker preparation without the laborious peeling process.
"We are very excited to be partnering with Long Island farmers and winemakers to share Long Island's bounty with an even larger audience than ever before," King said, adding he has been considering the former Blackman building for eight years. The facility will bring new jobs to Riverhead, he said.
Originally planned as a multi-million dollar agriculture processing facility on vacant land, the project evolved into an operational agri-processing plant.
Onhand were a bevy of elected officials including New York State Senator Ken LaValle, New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, and New York State Assemblyman Dan Losquadro, as well as Riverhead Town Councilmen John Dunleavy and Jodi Giglio.
"Today we celebrate the beginning of a successful public/private partnership that will enable our farmers to extend their reach and expose new markets to the wonderful produce grown on the North Fork and eastern Long Island," LaValle said.
In the months leading up to Friday's ribbon cutting, roadblocks put the brakes on the project's progress: At least one neighbor, Austin Warner, protested that the proposed business needed an approval from the Riverhead zoning board of appeals before it could open its doors.
Warner, who asked that the ZBA rule on the matter, could not immediately be reached for comment.
His plan, King said, is to move a portion of his business -- the vegetable cutting and processing component -- from its current location in Bay Shore to Calverton.
According to King, up until this point, local farmers have not been able to sell their wares to chain supermarkets including Stop & Shop because they have not been able to effectively cool the produce to meet industry standards. That problem will be solved, King said, by four walk-in refrigeration units, or boxes, with different climate controls, some with misters, he plans to locate at the Calverton Avenue facility. A hydro cooler will be available to those who want to avail themselves of its use, he said; fees for services will be charged.
"We really think this is a great way to align ourselves with farmers," King said.
Moving forward, King said, East End farmers could be able to sell their produce along with King's produce, during the times of year when it's in season. Although a marketing plan is not firmly in place, the produce could feature "Grown on Long Island" labels or, possibly, the names of East End farms.
King, whose clients include high-end establishments including the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, said the building symbolizes a good move for his $200 million business, which, he said, needed to expand. "This is a great building at a great price," he said.