The Research and Advice Center at Baiting Hollow has been helping LI breeders for 100 years

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The Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Baiting Hollow yesterday celebrated its 100th anniversary since it began providing local farmers with research and education about crops with a centennial celebration 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 research into local crops such as cabbage, potatoes, sweetcorn and cucumbers. In 1921, Long Island’s agricultural industry accounted for 18% of New York State’s crops, and some growers have clamored for a local “testing station” to study the problems of the industry in the area.

Over the past hundred years, Long Island’s farms and crops have changed, as has the research and extension center. Originally a team of three, the facility’s staff has grown to 20 professionals who help growers manage everything from diseases and insects that threaten to destroy their crops to introducing new research-based methods to raise money for the crops to save materials needed for agriculture.

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

LIHREC’s campus, located on 68 acres on Sound Avenue and surrounded by farmland, began at 30 acres. It features 18,000 square feet of greenhouse space, multiple diagnostic and research labs, weather and air quality monitoring stations, and a water quality testing well.

The center has research programs in entomology, floriculture, nursery and landscape design, ornamental horticulture and plant breeding, plant pathology, vegetable crops, viticulture and weedology. To put it simply, the center examines almost everything that arable farmers in the region need in order to be able to continue growing.

Suffolk and Nassau counties have around 592 farms and around 31,000 acres of farmland, according to a 2019 Profile of Agriculture issued by the New York State Comptroller. Suffolk accounts for most of the farmland in the region and has 69 wineries, the largest number by county in the state. The county also ranks fourth in total agricultural sales in the state and first in bedding and garden plant sales and number of tomatoes harvested.

With the development of agriculture and science over the past 100 years, LIHREC’s research has also evolved to meet the needs of local growers.

Martha Pollack, President of Cornell University, and Ben Houlton, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Science, after touring the center on September 22. Photo: Alex Lewis

“If you look at the articles about this place 100 years ago, the farmers had the same problems,” Bridgen said. “They had bugs, they had diseases, they had problems. And now we have the same problems: different insects, different diseases, different technological problems. So we’ve changed, we’ve adapted. We are solving these problems now.”

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

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

The center’s staff are the contacts that farmers call when they have problems that they cannot solve themselves. In one case, Bridgen said an organic farmer in North Fork bought organic potting soil that ended up containing too much salt and killing the grower’s plants. LIHREC was able to help provide scientific evidence to the soil company’s insurance company to recover the cost of the soil and damage to the grower.

“There are situations like this where growers feel helpless, like, what should I do? How do I prove to them that I’m right?” Bridgen said. “So that’s what we’re going to do.”

LIHREC director Mark Bridgen speaks at the centenary. Photo: Alex Lewis

Bridgen said the biggest change at the facility in his 20 years at LIHREC has been the shift towards research into the environmental impacts of agriculture and the chemicals used to grow crops.

“Ways that we can reduce the use of pesticides, ways to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizers that get into groundwater, air quality, things like that,” he said, as he began explaining how farmers have started using pesticides through a species Replacing pest-eating worm and how controlled-release fertilizers help reduce nitrogen pollution in groundwater.

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

Members of Long Island’s agricultural community gathered on the LIHREC grounds Thursday to celebrate the anniversary with a small gala that featured local wine served in bottles adorned with special 100th anniversary labels and poured into souvenir glasses became.

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

“I think LIHREC is incredibly important. It’s just so much what Cornell is about, right? Both advancing science and reaching out to the communities around us to help whenever we can. So it’s really important,” Pollack said. “I am very happy to be here at the 100-year celebration.”

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

“I wanted the President down here because she’s making a statement, not because I wanted to meet her or anything,” he said. “I think it’s a sign of our employees and our supporters, our industry supporters, that Cornell is supporting us. And we’re 300 miles from Ithaca, so sometimes you feel like the stepchild of the university.”

LIHREC scientists said they believe their work is making a difference on Long Island.

“The breeders really appreciate our work, so one of the best things is to work with different breeders,” said Faruque Zaman, an entomologist who has been conducting insect control research at LIHREC since 2011. “I have the opportunity to work with vegetable growers, fruit growers, wine growers, some nurseries. So that’s a big part of working on Long Island, you’re not limited to working with a single plant every day.”

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

“And the growers in the area,” McGrath said. “because they are very interested in what we do. They strive to customize what we think works well. It’s very rewarding to help people and I enjoy helping farmers, that’s my background.”

Bob Anderson speaks of the center’s importance to local agriculture. Photo: Alex Lewis

Bob Anderson, a local grower who grew up on a family farm, said LIHREC’s newsletters help provide growers with intricate information needed for the success of their business.

He said he asked his father, a farmer in his eighties, what comes to mind when he thinks of LIHREC: “He says ‘everything’. He says ‘the whole package,'” Anderson said.

He shared a story from his father about a storm that damaged the farm’s tomato crop and how a LIHREC worker helped identify a microorganism in the crop and fix the problem.

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

Assemblyman Fred Thiele and State Senator Anthony Palumbo sponsored a resolution that they presented to Bridgen during the gala honoring the work of LIHREC. Thiele said the center was a “foundation stone” for agriculture, which he says is one of the region’s “most important” industries.

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

LIHREC was praised by other attendees at 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 of Long Island agriculture,” Krupski said.

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

“The work that’s done here at the Horticultural Research Center — for greenhouse growers, vegetable growers, our vineyards — has been instrumental in the survival of our industry here,” said Rob Carpenter, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “Farmers have many unique, challenging problems that these researchers and scientists work on every day. And the farmers are constantly calling here for advice and guidance and to be able to solve problems. So in my opinion this is one of the most important institutions for [agriculture] on Long Island.”

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Alek Lewis

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