The Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Baiting Hollow, founded in 1922, provides a crucial service to the region's growers. Nursery plants, field crops and greenhouses occupy the center's sprawling 68-acre campus on Sound Avenue. Photo: Alek Lewis

The Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Baiting Hollow yesterday marked 100 years since it started providing research and education on crops to local farmers with a centennial gala attended by the president of Cornell University.

The research facility, an extension of Cornell, was founded in 1922 as the Long Island Vegetable Research Farm and focused on researching local crops like cabbage, potato, sweet corn and cucumber. In 1921, Long Island’s agriculture industry made up 18% of New York State’s crops and some growers were clamoring for a local “experiment station” to examine the industry’s problems in the region.

Throughout the last hundred years, as Long Island farms and the crops they grew changed, so too did the research and extension center. Originally a three-person team, the facility’s staff has grown to 20 professionals who help growers navigate everything from disease and insects that threaten to destroy their crops, to introducing new research-based methods to save money on materials needed to farm. 

“We’re here so that if anybody comes with a question somebody can answer it, hopefully. And if we can’t answer it, we can find somebody who can answer it,” said Mark Bridgen, the center’s director, who sees the facility as a “one-stop shop” for growers on Long Island. 

Located on 68 acres on Sound Avenue surrounded by farmland, LIHREC’s campus started out at 30 acres. It has 18,000 square feet of greenhouse space, several diagnostic and research laboratories, weather and air quality monitoring stations and a water quality testing well.

The center has research programs on entomology, floriculture, nursery and landscaping, ornamental horticulture and plant breeding, plant pathology, vegetable crops, viticulture and weed science. In layman’s terms, the center studies almost everything crop farmers in the region need to keep on growing.

Suffolk and Nassau counties have around 592 farms and approximately 31,000 acres of farmland, according to a 2019 profile of agriculture published by the New York State comptroller. Suffolk makes up the majority of farmland in the region and has 69 wineries, the largest number by county in the state. The county also ranks fourth in overall agricultural sales in the state, and is the first for sales of bedding and garden plants, and for the number of tomatoes harvested.

As farming and science evolved over the last 100 years, LIHREC’s research has evolved along with it to meet the needs of local growers.

Cornell University President Martha Pollack and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Science Ben Houlton after a tour of the center on Sept. 22. Photo: Alek Lewis

“If you look back at the articles about this place back 100 years ago, the farmer’s had the same kinds of problems,” Bridgen said. “They had insects, they had diseases, they had problems. And now we have the same kinds of problems: different insects, different diseases, different technological issues. So we’ve changed, we’ve adapted. We solve those problems now.”

Bridgen recalled a conversation he had with the long-time executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, Joe Gergela, when he was first interviewed for the job as director of LIHREC. It set expectations for the job he would be in for the next 20 years, and displayed the importance of the center’s role in the region’s farming industry.

“He said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that if you don’t do your job well, you’re out of here,” Bridgen recalled. Bridgen’s reaction was “Who is this guy?” he recalled. “But that’s the way it is. The industry expects us to do our jobs. And we do. And if we don’t, they suffer. It’s the bottom line for them. It’s money.”

The center’s staff are the people farmers call when they have problems they can’t solve themselves. In one instance, Bridgen said one organic grower on the North Fork had purchased organic plant soil that ended up having too much salt and killed the grower’s plants. LIHREC was able to help provide scientific proof to the soil company’s insurance company to get the grower reimbursed for the cost of the soil and damages.

“There’s situations like that, that the growers feel helpless, like, what do I do? How do I prove them I’m right?” Bridgen said. “So that’s what we do.”

LIHREC Director Mark Bridgen speaks at the centennial celebration. Photo: Alek Lewis

Bridgen said that over his 20 years at LIHREC, the facility’s biggest change has come in the shift towards research of how farming and the chemicals used to grow crops impact the environment. 

“Ways that we can reduce pesticide use, ways to decrease the amount of nitrogen fertilizers going into the groundwater, air quality, things like that,” he said, as he began to explain how farmers have begun to replace pesticides with a type of pest-eating worm, and how controlled-release fertilizers are helping to reduce nitrogen pollution in groundwater.

The researchers at LIHREC are renowned in their fields, some having written books and received international recognition. LIHREC’s staff will be honored as the Long Island Nursery and Landscape Association’s “Men and Women of the Year” at an awards gala this November.

Member’s of Long island’s agricultural community gathered on the grounds of LIHREC on Thursday to celebrate the anniversary with a small gala, featuring local wine being served in bottles adorned with special 100th anniversary labels being poured into souvenir glasses. 

Cornell University President Martha Pollack and Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Science Ben Houlton attended the event and took a tour of the LIHREC campus beforehand, where they heard research presentations from the staff. This is only the second time Cornell’s president has visited LIHREC, with the last time being in 1977.

“I think that LIHREC is incredibly important. It’s just sort of so much what Cornell is about, right? Both advancing the sciences and reaching out to the communities around us to help out when we can. So it’s really important,” Pollack said. “I’m so excited to be here for the 100 year celebration.”

Pollack’s appearance at Thursday’s celebration was a testament to LIHREC’s work and the impact it has on the community, Bridgen said.

“I wanted the president down here because it makes a statement, not because I wanted to meet her or anything like that,” he said. “I think it makes a statement to our staff and to our supporters, our industry supporters, that Cornell supports us. And we’re 300 miles away from Ithaca, so sometimes you feel like the step-child of the university.”

Scientists at LIHREC said they feel their work makes a difference on Long Island.

“The growers are very appreciative about our work, so that’s one of the best things, working with diverse growers,” said Faruque Zaman, an entomologist who has conducted research on insect control at LIHREC since 2011. “I have the opportunity to work with vegetable growers, fruit growers, vineyard managers, some nurseries. So that is a great part of working on Long Island, you are not limited to working with a single crop every day.”

Margaret McGrath, a plant pathologist at LIHREC said that “what makes [LIHREC] special is, number one: the people are here that I have to interact with, because that helps me an awful lot to be successful myself.”

“And the growers in the area,” McGrath said. “because they’re very interested in what we’re doing. They’re eager to adapt what we find that works well. It’s very rewarding to help people and I enjoy helping farmers, it’s my background.”

Bob Anderson speaks of the importance of the center to local agriculture. Photo: Alek Lewis

Bob Anderson, a local grower who was raised on a family farm, said LIHREC’s newsletters help convey to growers complicated information necessary for their businesses to thrive. 

He said he asked his father, a farmer in his 80s, what came to mind when he thought of LIHREC: “He goes, ‘everything.’ He goes, ‘the entire package,’” Anderson said. 

He told a story from his father about a storm that damaged the farm’s tomato crop, and how a LIHREC staff member helped identify a microorganism in the crops and correct the problem.

“That’s how important it is for this group of people to be here,” Anderson said.

Assembly Member Fred Thiele and State Senator Anthony Palumbo sponsored a resolution they presented to Bridgen during the gala honoring LIHREC’s work. Thiele said the center has been a “keystone” to agriculture, which he said is one of the region’s most “important” industries.

“The information that is generated here, and the work that Cornell does, overall, has been critical, largely to agriculture, as we’re talking about today, but also to another key industry, and that is our marine industries also. So its support for those industries, its support for the families that undertake those industries, and its 100 years,” Thiele said, “And it’s a great thing for us to recognize the important role that Cornell Cooperative Extension has played in the community overall, and in particular, this facility, specifically for agriculture.”

LIHREC received praise from others attending the event, including North Fork farmer and County Legislator Al Krupski. “This lab has provided technical support to agriculture for 100 years, and Cornell University has been a tremendous supporter to Long Island agriculture,” Krupski said.

Vanessa Lockel, the executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, said the center is a “Mecca” for the region’s growers and farmers. “I think Long Island has a hidden gem here,” she said.

“The work that is done here at the Horticultural Research Center — for greenhouse growers, vegetable farmers, our vineyards —  has been instrumental in the survival of our industry here,” Long Island Farm Bureau Administrative Director Rob Carpenter said. “Farmers have many unique, challenging issues that these researchers and scientists work on on a daily basis. And farmers call here all the time for advice and guidance and the ability to solve problems. So in my mind, this is one of the most important institutions for [agriculture] on Long Island.”

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Alek Lewis

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