Robert Nolan’s great grandfather started farming in Middle Village, Queens, NY at the turn of the century. At that time there was plenty of fertile acreage for farming, but rapid development of the area forced a move. Several moves later, Deer Run Farms settled in Brookhaven. Nolan is the fourth generation to farm Deer Run Farms, and two of his children, Sam and Valerie, have joined the 30-acre farm operation as fifth generation farmers.
Nolan says he learned a lot about soil fertility when his uncle Henry Lohmann was actively farming the property. “He said that if all I do is compost, I should be fine,” said Nolan. “Don’t ever give up the compost. It’s important for the sandy soil to hold nutrients.”
To that end, Nolan spends time making compost to amend the sandy soil. Local horse farms bring manure to the farm and the municipalities bring leaves. Sam uses a bucket loader to turn the compost as needed. Compost piles are turned three times to maximize the temperature. Although making good compost requires an investment in large equipment, Nolan says it’s worth it to have a good final product.
Finished compost is applied just prior to planting and plowed in. “I don’t like to apply a long time in advance because it tends to hold the moisture on top of the ground,” said Nolan. ‘Then if we have rainy weather, it’s too wet to get into the field.” Annual soil tests determine fertilization needs, although Nolan says soil tests have been consistent since he’s been using compost regularly. Slow-release nitrogen is applied as needed so there’s more available to the plant and less leaching.
Deer Run Farms limits its crops to three vegetable families to help manage insect and disease issues. “Lettuce and cabbage have different diseases and insect problems,” said Nolan. “It breaks the cycle when we rotate crops. Sometimes I double or triple crop, so on a 30-acre farm, I can get 65 to 70 acres of actual cropland to harvest.”
Leafy greens are the main crop at Deer Run Farms. “We grow about eight or nine different lettuces,” said Nolan, adding that other greens include escarole and spinach. “People have gotten into healthy eating and like Romaine and some of the darker, leafy lettuces. We also grow Boston red and green lettuce, and several specialty lettuces including Batavian and oak leaf lettuces.”
Nolan noted that spinach has a short growing season and doesn’t tolerate heat, so it’s grown in spring and fall. “We’ll never get the yield in summer,” said Nolan. “The start time for the season is based on the weather. We’ll seed the first spinach at the end of March if we can. We start when the (standing) water is gone and we can work the ground. Once we get rolling, we seed every week from May first until August.”
To cut down on club root and cabbage maggot in cruciferous crops such as cabbage and kale, Nolan grows cabbage and related vegetables on half the farm one year and the other half the next. Although he used to start his own plants in cold frames, Nolan has found it easier to purchase good plugs from a New Jersey grower. “Plugs are more reliable, and they take off better than bareroots if we get cold weather,” he said. “If we aren’t right on top of bareroots with water, they tend to die.”
Nolan grows what he knows he can sell. “People are asking for dinosaur, or Tuscan kale,” he said. “I’ve only been growing kale for two years and have limited acres, so I want to make sure I have a market for it before I grow it.” Deer Run Farms also grows herbs, including basil and arugula.
Overhead irrigation from a 60 ft. deep well provides water for crops. “I have the water checked every year, and it always comes back fine,” said Nolan, explaining the necessity for water testing. “I think if we can show a pattern that the water tests are good, there’s no worry. But surface water is tricky – how to test, when to test. It’s a moving target.”
To keep the soil stable when crops aren’t in the ground, Nolan uses cover crops. “We put oats in in September,” he said. “Oats are like grass – they tend to die if we have a cold winter and we can get out in the field earlier. But if we have a warm winter, they don’t die, and we have to kill the crop.”
Nolan also uses cold-tolerant rye as a cover crop, which he can plant as late as October. Although many farmers blend small grains with other cover crops such as Austrian peas or radishes, Nolan avoids those combinations because he can’t tie up acreage with a cover crop for more than a short time. “The other reason is that radishes and mustard are in the same family as cabbage,” he said. “We don’t want to put another crop of the same family in.”
Deer Run Farms produce is sold in several outlets, including their own roadside stand which is open from June 1 through the end of October. Nolan says the stand appeals to New York City residents who populate Long Island during the summer. Nolan also sells produce to other area stands, wholesalers and supermarkets that are loyal to local farmers. “A lot of supermarkets have gone to the extra expense of taking our picture and interviewing us so people can put a face to the product, and that’s helpful.”
Nolan’s son Sam, a graduate of SUNY Cobleskill, is the operations manager for the farm. Sam oversees irrigation, fertilization and crop protectant applications, land preparation and planting. He makes sure the crew is on schedule and harvesting crops as necessary to fill orders.
“We have H2 workers,” said Nolan, “and in the early morning, I go out and talk with my head man and give him a preview for the day. We take care of our local orders first – the road stands and local pickups, then we work on the bigger orders.” Nolan’s daughter Valerie runs the roadside stand, and will return to the farm after finishing college this year.
Nolan represents Long Island on the New York State Farm Bureau, and says that the new Worker Protection Standard will be a challenge for all growers.