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Niche foods carving out a place in East End market

The Horseradish Festival features the North Fork Horseradish

The Horseradish Festival features the North Fork Horseradish Festival Farmer's Market, on Sunday, April 19, 2015, in Riverhead. Credit: Jeffrey Henson

Chocolate horseradish peanut butter cups, horseradish empanadas, and tea and beer infused with the root.

The second annual North Fork Horseradish Festival in Riverhead was a sinus-clearing, eye-watering experience for the more than 1,000 people who came Sunday to sample foods made from the hot plant.

For Matthew Schmitt, a fourth-generation farmer whose family's Riverhead farm supplied most of the horseradish, it's a possible future for Long Island agriculture.

"I want to keep farming; I want my kid to be able to farm if he wants," said Schmitt, 30, who founded Holy Schmitt's Homemade Horseradish in 2010. "You can't compete with the wholesalers. It's about finding a niche."

The East End isn't all potatoes and ducks anymore, nor is it all about wine. Specialty produce is gaining a hold, often buoyed by festivals or events.

"The days of cauliflower and potatoes and cabbage are long gone," said Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. "There's not enough money to economically sustain that type of business, unless you have a specialty way of marketing or packaging those products."

The market value of all the farm goods produced in Suffolk fell 1 percent, to $240 million, between 2007 and 2012, according to federal statistics.

In 2010, Matthew Schmitt began selling jars of horseradish at the family's farm stand in Riverhead.

The plant once covered a half-acre of the family's 200-acre farm. That increased to 3 acres two years ago and 6 acres last year.

Schmitt plans to plant about 10 acres of the root later this spring.

Farmers on Eastern Long Island say they increasingly have to find ways to innovate, either by finding niche products, incorporating a level of entertainment or both.

At the Garden of Eve Organic Farm and Market in Riverhead, next week is the third "Chickapalooza," where people can learn about raising backyard chickens, bees and other animals.

Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, co-owner of the farm, said, "You need to draw people's attention to how what they're getting is different from a mass marketer."

The farm also hosts an annual Garlic Festival in September.

While the Phil A. Schmitt & Son Farm provided all the horseradish roots, the festival was run by Starfish Junction Productions of Bay Shore, whose owner, Andy Calimano, got the idea from local traditions of East End "horseradish parties."

One of the most popular ones, hosted by Riverhead attorney Peter Danowski, was held every Wednesday before Easter, when everyone would gather to peel, grind and mix up a supply of horseradish.

The line Sunday for Schmitt's, which sold seven varieties including cranberry, beet and barbecue, snaked around the grounds. There were free samples.

David Gershman of North Bellmore gave a yelp as he tried some of the original. "It caught me by surprise," he said. His wife, Jill Gershman, said, "I felt it in my eyeballs."

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