TODAY'S PAPER
Good Morning
Good Morning

Behind the scenes at Long Island's suburban farms

Organics Today Farm in East Islip.

There’s nothing bucolic about the setting of Organics Today Farm. At the dead end of an East Islip street lined with modest split levels, it is bordered on the south by LIRR tracks, on the east by a Heckscher State Parkway overpass and on the north by a picket fence just high enough to conceal a neighbor’s in-ground pool.

And that’s just the way the farmer, Michael Massino, wanted it. “I like that it’s in the town where I live,” he said. “I like that it is in a residential neighborhood. Someone will show up at 5:30 saying, ‘I need a head of lettuce for dinner.’ I get a kick out of that.”

On a chilly day in May, the farm stand at Organics Today is a parade of seedlings, each identified by a hand-inscribed tongue depressor. There’s kale and kohlrabi, cucumbers and carrots, cauliflower and celery and a flotilla of tomatoes—beefsteak, Roma, San Marzano, cherries both red and gold. Beyond the stand, you can see these same varieties, and dozens more, being planted in neat rows by a handful of volunteer farmers.

It will be a few weeks before his first spinach and lettuces can be harvested, but the farm’s store is already carrying produce that Massino brought in from farms down South, where the growing season is already underway: corn from Florida, melons from Georgia. The unseasonably cold weather has meant a slow start for Long Island crops. And then there is COVID-19, which has inspired him to buttress his own offerings with more vegetables, fruits, even fresh chicken and meat. “Right now, people do not want to go to the supermarket,” he said, adding with pride, “During COVID I have fed so many people.”

Organics Today is one of a handful of Long Island farms situated right smack in the middle of suburbia. Unlike their more numerous cousins out east, they tend to be small and new, often founded by second-career farmers who came to see their destiny wrapped up with sustainable agriculture, people like Massino, Teddy Bolkas of Thera Farms in Brentwood and the team at Crossroads Farm at Grossman’s in Malverne.

The granddaddy of Long Island’s suburban farms, Rottkamp Brothers in Old Brookville, is the exception to the rule, more than 50 acres that have been cultivated by the Rottkamp family since 1953. But it fulfills the same purpose: a source of fresh food for tens of thousands of Long Islanders that is as convenient as the local supermarket.

At Organics Today, Massino presides over a parcel that’s about half as big as the Nassau Coliseum (the arena, not the parking lot), but if you squint, you can block out East Islip. Old-timey signposts directing guests to picnic tables, pumpkins, honeybees and the ramshackle greenhouse are the romantic touches of someone who came late to farming.

Massino owned two successful Suffolk restaurants but found himself burnt out and bored. “I felt like I was doing more taking than giving,” he said. He’d always been good at making things grow (a quality he attributes, simply, to “being Italian”) and long ago he’d started growing tomatoes for himself, his restaurant and his friends. By the time he started looking to buy a farm, both his front and back lawns were given over to 170 tomato plants, and it was time to expand and go full time.

In 2006, he found a sand pit at the end of Washington Street in East Islip that was owned by the Town of Islip. Because the land was zoned recreational (and not residential) and because the town liked the idea of an organic farm, he was able to obtain it for a reasonable sum.

His first task was to make soil, and here is his recipe: 40 percent manure and 60 percent leaves, mixed and left to age for at least a year. (Both ingredients are local and are delivered free of charge from, respectively, a horse farm and a clutch of landscapers who do not spray with pesticides.) Now, 14 years in, he regards the soil the way a baker does his dough, with a sense of accomplishment and wonder.

Soil is an issue for any suburban farm that springs up in a place where there hadn’t been one before. In 2016, when Teddy Bolkas first signed the lease in Brentwood, he found that beneath the grass, “the soil was packed like concrete.” He plowed, tilled, planted cover crops and sowed his first seeds a year later. Today he is as proud of his sandy loam—”soft, fluffy, no clumps, no rocks”—as he is of the plants he grows.  

As sowing gets underway at Organics Today, the expanse of what Massino calls his “chocolatey soil” is interrupted by a gnarled pine tree that rises up in the middle of the field like a volcanic island in a sea of brown. “That is the border of the original lot I farmed—it was barely an acre,” he noted. But the tree has more than just sentimental value: It houses the nest of a family of Carolina wrens who help him out by eating the cabbage worms. Massino keeps an acre as uncultivated habitat for birds that eat nonbeneficial insects. (What humans deem “beneficial insects,” such as ladybugs and praying mantises, eat aphids and other nonbeneficial cousins.)

Thirty miles west in Malverne, the birds also have the run of Crossroads Farm, five acres nestled in the triangle where Ocean and Hempstead avenues come to a point just south of the Southern State Parkway. The farmers used police tape to cordon off the mid-field nest of a pair of killdeer and their nest of four eggs.

If Organics Today represents the vision of one man, Crossroads, cultivated by the Grossman family for more than 100 years, is a collaboration among Nassau County, the Nassau Land Trust and the dozens of volunteers that Rick White, the trust’s chairman, calls “our secret ammunition.”

A partner organization of the East End’s Peconic Land Trust, NLT was formed in 2001 with a mission of conserving undeveloped land and facilitating easements on preserved property, but once they took over the farm in 2008, said White, “this became the centerpiece of what we did.”

In season, Crossroad’s farm stand sells both its own produce and “imports” from larger Long Island farms that grow what it doesn’t—peaches from Wickham’s in Cutchogue, corn from Rottkamp’s Fox Hollow Farm in Calverton. Starting in May, it also runs a weekly farmers market with vendors that include Violet Cove Oyster Co. (East Moriches), J.A. Heneghan Family Farms beef (West Coxsackie), Orwashers bakery (Manhattan) and The Big Cheese, Long Island’s itinerant artisanal cheesemonger. “We like being a local food hub,” White said.

Nella Stranieri,chief farming officer at Crossroads Farm at
Rowdy Debias, field manager at Crossroads Farm at
(L/R) Field manager Rowdy Debias, Nella Stranieri,, chief
Left: Nella Stranieri, chief farming officer at Crossroads Farm at Grossmans in Malverne. Top: Rowdy Debias, field manager at Crossroads Farm at Grossmans. Bottom: Rowdy Debias, Nella Stranieri, and Leonore Russell, head of education at Crossroads Farm at Grossmans in Malverne, plant flower beds. Photo credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

But the farm’s primary mission is education. Customers can buy directly from the farm or, observed chief farming officer Nella Stranieri, “they can be inspired by the farm and grow food at home. The important thing is that people learn to take care of the earth and learn ways to do it better.”

The farm specifically targets children; more than 500 Valley Stream fourth graders, for instance, participate in the “sow to grow” program.

“Before they came here,” White said, “some of our kids had never seen a tomato plant, thought they grew in the Stop & Shop. They may never have eaten a salad. The program makes them ambassadors for being respectful and loving toward the living environment.” This year, kids participated in planting and harvesting via photographs and Zoom.

School programs provide a revenue stream for Crossroads, as does the farm stand and a handful of restaurant buyers. But the lion’s share of funds comes from grants, benefit events and, most of all, private benefactors and family foundations. Nor could the four-person full-time staff easily handle the work without the sweat equity of board members and, most of all, the dozens of volunteers who do everything from weeding to retail to education.

Since the county owns it, Crossroads pays no property taxes, but it also receives no public funds for operating expenses. White estimates that he needs to raise $350,000 a year to be able to buy seed, maintain the equipment, pay the staff and utility bills. But a nonprofit farm just needs to break even, not make a profit. That is not the case at most farms. At its most basic level, sus-tainable agriculture means the agriculture needs to sustain the farmer.

Teddy Bolkas figures it cost him well over $100,000 to get Thera Farms off the ground. For the last two years, he has turned a small profit, but Bolkas has put almost all of it back into the business. He plans to build two greenhouses this year (he already has three) and he estimates each will cost him $20,000.  

Bolkas works the farm for eight hours every day, and then, five afternoons a week at 4:30, he heads to the LIRR to commence an eight-hour shift as an electrician. “The thing with agriculture is you are dependent on Mother Nature,” he said. “I have a family and I need the security and the insurance that a job provides. I tell people, if you want to be a gambler, you don’t have to go to Vegas. Just start a farm.”

When he was seven, Bolkas’ family moved to Long Island from Greece (“Thera” is the Greek name for the island of Santorini), and his father started keeping goats and chickens on their Ronkonkoma property. By the time he was 30, he was farming the entire two acres with tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, fruit trees, honeybees and hydroponic lettuces inside a greenhouse. Four years ago, after back surgery, he was faced with a choice: Stop farming, or get a farm big enough to support the equipment that would take him to the next level. He was game, but his financial position dictated he find a partner. “There’s farmland in Brentwood,” he was told when he called the Peconic Land Trust.

Wait—farmland in Brentwood? The hamlet is known more for its bodegas, panaderias and taquerias than agriculture. What Bolkas didn’t know was that the town’s private largest landholder is the Sisters of St. Joseph.

In 1896, the order purchased 350 acres and established a motherhouse (and, in 1903, a boarding school) that, until the 1960s, were virtually self-sustaining, raising dairy cattle, chickens, fruits and vegetables. Wanting to revive farming and preserve it for future generations, the sisters had recently sold development rights on 28 acres to Suffolk County for farmland preservation.

In 2016, Bolkas leased 10 acres just inside the Washington Avenue gate to the campus, and another eight “in back” where a number of even smaller-scale operations have rows, including Red Fox Farm, Napolitano Family Farm, Island Harvest Food Bank and the Long Island Native Plant Initiative.

"I tell people, if you want to be a gambler, you don’t have to go to Vegas. Just start a farm.”

Teddy Bolkas, Thera Farms

In June, he and his four full-time employees started harvesting spinach, broccoli rabe, radishes and arugula. Last year’s strawberries—an “everbearing” variety that fruits from July to September—proved so popular, he’s increased them from three rows to eight. He usually brings in tree fruit (peaches, apples and pears) from other New York State farms but since he has not been able to source enough sugar plums (a type of Italian plum), he planted his own trees, which he expects to fruit in three years.

“I love the soil prep, the cultivating. It’s tractor therapy, sitting up there, hearing the ground scrape around the plow.” Tractors by day, trains by night—Bolkas jokes that he has never grown out of his favorite childhood toys.

But there’s a more tangible rationale behind his love of tractors. “The most expensive part of agriculture is labor, and machines can save labor,” he explained. Money, in fact, is always on Bolkas’ mind. “People misunderstand, they think somehow farmers are getting rich. They see me selling tomatoes for $3 a pound when the supermarket sells them for a dollar. And then people get upset when they see farmers selling their land—but the farms don’t get enough support to stay open.”

Despite his initial ambivalence, opening a farm on the grounds of the convent in Brentwood was a godsend for Bolkas. As it turns out, the residents of Brentwood are willing to pay a premium for freshly harvested produce.

“Eighty percent of my customers speak Spanish,” he said. “Many of them were farmers in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Their parents still farm. These guys know the lettuce doesn’t grow in Aisle 3. Even though there are two supermarkets within a half mile of me with prices that are half of mine, these guys still come and support me.” (Another unintended blessing: At the farm, Bolkas met a former nun, Heather Ganz, who he married. Last year they had a daughter, Emily.)

Beyond making enough money to sustain his family, Bolkas defines “sustainable” as doing right by his customer by keeping his prices as low as possible, doing right by his employees by paying them a living wage and doing right by the planet by engaging in practices such as cover crop- ping and crop rotation.

For Michael Massino at Organics Today, the key to sustainability is diversification. “I’m a good grower,” he said, “and I am a good marketer.”

The former restaurateur possesses an ability to kibitz, remembering which seedlings one customer bought last year, devising a plan with another customer to get her young daughter involved in farming, calling another farm out in Calverton on behalf of another customer who is looking for local rhubarb.

Massino has a vital presence on Instagram and Facebook, where he’s been giving cooking lessons from his own kitchen. He built his website by himself and he is as conversant with search-engine optimization and reciprocal links as he is with irrigation and mulch. Listed under “events” are cooking classes, gardening classes, bee-keeping classes, hayrides, moonlight pumpkin-picking, herbal-healing walks. Most of these are free; all of them either strengthen ties to the community or forge new ones.

No matter how good its produce, a farm needs customers to exist. Teddy Bolkas put it bluntly: “The most important part of sustainable agriculture is money. People love having farms around, but they have to vote with their dollars, and make us part of their weekly grocery shopping.”

Farming is in the blood: Rottkamp Brother’s Farm

The Rottkamp brothers have always been farmers. Ray, 73, and Richard, 71, grew up in Hempstead, working on the first Rottkamp farm, 48 acres along Hempstead Turnpike due east of Belmont Racetrack.  

Now they preside over Nassau County’s largest farm. Established in 1953, it covers about 50 contiguous acres of brown soil and green leaves in Old Brookville and is surrounded by some of Long Island’s oldest and grandest estates. The laconic brothers exist in almost comic counterpoint to their Gold Coast surroundings.

Their crew is lean. At the height of the season, they might have another six people in the field; their wives, sisters Anne Marie (who married Ray) and Michele (who married Richard), work the farm stand. But that’s not to say they don’t have help: Between the farm’s gravel parking area and the big corrugated metal shed, they have about 20 tractors, the oldest of which, a Ford 9N, is the same age as Richard.

And each has a different job to do. One is rigged to plow, another to till, another to seed, another to fertilize, another to pull a wagon. It’s a much more efficient approach than continually swapping out the attachments. “Let’s say I finished seeding, switched to tilling and realized I forgot to seed a couple of rows. Switching them around, you get nothing done,” said Richard.

When the family bought the land in Old Brookville, Richard said, “This was the country.” Gesturing north toward the Sound, he said, “there were a lot of farms between here and the water back then.” (The only other survivor is Youngs Farm, about two miles due east, which was established in 1892. The Youngs family currently farms about 10 acres, and the farm is known as much for its retail shop and pies as for its crops.)

In the early days of the farm, the Rottkamps grew fewer than a dozen crops: cabbage, collards, kale, turnip greens, potatoes. Now Richard estimates they grow 40 to 50. Among the most popular are potatoes (russet, yellow and Yukon Gold), pumpkins and gourds, as well as those that require little or no cooking—tomatoes (about 10 varieties including plum, beefsteaks, Striped German, Brandywine and Sungold), corn, lettuce, cucumber, cantaloupe, watermelon, radishes, parsley and dill.

Some of the crops, such as purple amaranth, are destined for Caribbean and Greek grocers where they are used, respectively, for the vegetable dishes callaloo and horta. Rare among suburban farms, Rottkamps has a thriving wholesale business, which Richard said accounts for about half the farm’s revenue. “We need both to survive,” he said.

During March, the brothers start seedlings in their enormous greenhouse and in April they begin planting. After an early haul of parsnips and horseradish (sold almost exclusively for Passover meals), the harvesting really doesn’t start until June.

Once the farm stand is open, usually around the last week in June, the circle is complete. “I love my customers,” Ray said. “I love getting off the tractor and having a customer to say to me, ‘Your corn was delicious.’ ”

They close after Thanksgiving, though they still might be delivering cabbage to the Hunts Point wholesale market until Christmas. After a few weeks off , it’s back to the farm to fix the tractors and start planning for the next year.

None of their children want to take over the farm, and neither tries to predict the future. “I’d like it to be around in 200 years,” said Ray. “I’d like to be 40 again,” said Rich. But, for now, they are going to continue to get up every day, drive to the farm from their homes in Glen Head and work the land. Said Richard simply, “It’s in our blood.”

More information

CROSSROADS FARM AT GROSSMAN’S: 480 Hempstead Ave., Malverne; 516-881-7900, xroadsfarmliny.com

ORGANICS TODAY FARM: 169 Washington St., East Islip

THERA FARMS: 1705 Brentwood Rd., Brentwood; 631-478-5229

ROTTKAMP BROTHERS FARM: McCouns Lane, Old Brookville; 516-671-2566

Latest reviews