East End farms grow niche crops for specialized markets

The idea to grow tobacco on the North Fork of Long Island came to Michael Chuisano about five years ago, as he sat on his deck, gazing across the water at the not-so-distant shores of Connecticut.

For generations, some of America’s most prized tobacco for cigar wrappers has come from farms along the Connecticut River, which empties into the Long Island Sound just eight miles north of Chuisano’s home in Orient Point. If the stuff grows in Connecticut, he thought, perhaps it could grow on Long Island.

“Fine tobacco is like wine,” said Chuisano, 57. “You need just the right soil and climate.”

So he set to work. And this month, in a sun-splashed field near his home, Chuisano harvested his first crop of broadleaf tobacco. Once the leaves dry and turn a rich caramel brown, he hopes to sell them to a select handful of buyers for high-end cigar makers.

Chuisano, who retired in 2011 from running a glass-installation company in Brooklyn, is among a small but growing number of East End farmers planting niche crops for specialized markets. The move is opening new opportunities for local farmers. And it’s pushing Long Island agriculture further beyond its traditional offerings of grapes, sod, sweet corn and potatoes.

Farmers in Southold, Wading River and Peconic are growing hops for local craft breweries. The East End Mushroom Company Inc. in Cutchogue is growing and handpicking organic shiitake, maitake and blue oyster mushrooms for high-end restaurants. And each year, a farm in Riverhead harvests wheat specifically for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn who use the grain for their Passover matzo.

“These crops add to the diversity out here, which hopefully adds to the profitability and the sustainability of our agriculture,” said Dale Moyer, associate executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

While most of Long Island has given way to suburbia, farming remains significant on the East End. Suffolk County farmers had $239.8 million in sales during 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, making it the state’s third most productive agricultural county.

Growing niche crops for a select customer base, however, comes with unique challenges.

John Zilnicki, whose family farm in Riverhead grows wheat for a Hasidic congregation in Brooklyn, must follow a list of kosher rules and work under a rabbi’s supervision. The wheat can’t be overripe. And under those rules, if rain falls onto the grain once it matures, the crop is ruined.

“We have to be bug free. No chemicals. Our machines have to be spotless. It’s a big production,” said Zilnicki, whose family primarily grows potatoes.

The local hops grown by a small but expanding fraternity of Long Island farmers are in high demand, thanks to the surging interest in craft brewing. But they need equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars to get started.

The plants, which grow as tall as 25 feet high, require a towering support system of poles and wires. Plus, they need a special machine for picking. Once off the vine, the hops must be used almost immediately to brew beer — or be dried and processed into pellets. That requires a special machine, too.

“Hops are a very serious investment,” said Chris Pinto, who has partnered with a Wall Street trader to grow several acres of the cone-shaped bitter flowers in Southold at North Fork Hops LLC. “It’s unlike any other farming.”

A delicate product

Few crops rival the challenges of high-end tobacco.

Since broadleaf tobacco is used for the outermost wrapping of cigars, it must be free of holes, creases and tears. That means hand harvesting. Tobacco-hungry worms, meanwhile, can pockmark an entire crop, rendering it virtually worthless. A hailstorm can do worse.

Plus, analysts say the long-term outlook for high-end cigar leaves is hardly promising.

That’s in part because social stigma, high taxes and public health initiatives have convinced millions of would-be customers to quit smoking, or never start at all. And thanks to smoking bans, gone are the days when high rollers could show off their thick cigars in steak houses and saloons, all but removing the opportunity for conspicuous consumption.

Still, the cigar market isn’t dead yet. Sales generally mirror the booms and busts of the broader economy. And as the United States continued to recover from the recession last year, retail sales of luxury cigars rose 4 percent. One of the biggest regions for growing the tobacco is a boat ride away from the tip of Long Island.

Inspiration to the north

The Connecticut Valley tobacco region stretches north from Hartford, following the gentle curves of the Connecticut River into Massachusetts, past white church steeples and faded red barns. The soil — like Long Island’s — is a rich blend of sand and clay. Farmers began growing tobacco there in early 1800s.

During the 1920s, tobacco fields sprawled for 41,200 acres. But office parks, subdivisions and shopping centers have since proliferated. In 2012, tobacco farms covered just 1,900 acres.

Still, it’s profitable. Over the last decade, Connecticut Valley’s tobacco harvests have sold for an average of $55.8 million annually, making it among the regions most valuable crops, according to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture.

But it is not easy to grow.

“I would not recommend getting into this business,” said William Leahey, a third-generation farmer who is president of the ConnMass Tobacco Growers Association. “Most who do it are born into a tobacco family — and even then it’s tough.”

Chuisano occasionally smokes cigars, but didn’t have a lick of farming experience. He grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, studied civil engineering at Hofstra and worked as a window and mirror installer, or a glazer.

He sold his company, LaFayette Mirror and Glass Co., in 2011. But Chuisano, who did much of the work himself to build his Orient Point home, wasn’t ready to fully retire.

He first learned of Connecticut tobacco while reading a cigar magazine. Then he looked across the water, and his mind began to churn.

Chuisano looked up farmers in Connecticut and persuaded a few to teach him the basics. “I researched the hell out of it for five years,” he said, standing in the shade of an apple tree beside his 2-acre field.

Finally, in 2012, Chuisano planted a 100-plant test crop in Cutchogue. It grew well, and the tobacco buyers in Connecticut bought every leaf.

So he began preparing to scale up production. He bought a used machine on eBay to transplant seedlings. He built a greenhouse, rented a field and leased two barns for hanging and drying his harvest.

In June, after nurturing the seedlings in the greenhouse, Chuisano, his wife and a neighbor sat atop the transplanter, rolling through the field and easing plants into the soil. They grew well for the first week. Then one morning, Chuisano took his regular walk through the rows and noticed a problem: worm holes.

Chuisano sent pictures to his mentors in Connecticut. They recommended insecticide. And the worms disappeared.

Chuisano is not the first to grow tobacco here. A few years ago, Richard DeLea planted a few acres as a test crop on his family’s sod farm in Riverhead. Instead of broadleaf, he chose a more labor-intensive and expensive variety called shade tobacco, which grows under cloth tents to trap humidity.

The crop grew beautifully, DeLea said. So he crunched numbers to estimate the cost of growing on a mass scale. He would need new equipment, more workers and cavernous drying barns. The numbers left his feet cold.

“I didn’t want to spend half a million dollars on a dying industry,” DeLea said. “But the stuff grew well out here.”

An arduous harvest

By September, Chuisano’s plants were 4 feet tall. The deep-green leaves were thick and leathery, like the skin of an alligator. It was time to harvest.

Chuisano recruited a dozen friends and neighbors and passed out miniature axes. For three sweat-drenched days, they chopped the stalks at the base, speared the plants onto poplar laths imported from South Carolina, then hung them from barn rafters.

“The first day was a little disorganized. The second day was better. By the third, we had it down pat,” said Chuisano, standing beneath the dangling greens rows in the barn. The air smelled sweet and earthy, like fermenting apples.

The leaves will dry for eight weeks, gradually turning silky. In the end, Chuisano hopes to have two tons and sell the crop for between $7 and $9 per pound. He hopes to make a slim profit. And next year, Chuisano would like to increase production to 5 acres.

Eventually, his leaves will be shipped to the Dominican Republic, Honduras and other places where labor is cheap and hand rolling cigars is tradition. But before it becomes wrappers, Chuisano’s tobacco will ferment for several years in the tropics, intensifying the sugars and allowing much of the ammonia, tar and nicotine to leech out.

So Chuisano will have to wait awhile before siting on his back deck, looking out at the water and smoking a Long Island cigar.