The frosty suburbs of Long Island peek out from underneath cool white blankets of fluffy snow. The sky, a celestial blue as crisp as the air, expands as nude trees sway under mighty gusts devoid of honeybee buzz and cricket chorales. The island’s farms are tucked beneath inches of compost and snow until next season’s till. Nature seems to lie in a pleasantly suspended state with all its green replaced by elegant shades of gray and white. However, one farm in Ronkonkoma supersedes the season’s slumber with a warm surprise.
Teddy Bolkas of Thera Farms shuffles through the cold in a T-shirt and shorts to his oasis among the freeze. He pushes open two doors, revealing a welcoming reserve of color and aroma, piercing the dead landscape. His heated hydroponic greenhouse is a winter paradise.
Raised in a Greek family of green-thumbed former goat farmers, his love for agriculture came naturally. His three-acre plot is well known among western Suffolk locavores for its array of organic heirloom veggies. However, his reputation as one of the island’s top tomato whisperers wasn’t satisfying enough to keep him hibernating all winter. A year and a half ago, he converted his 26- by 100-foot homemade greenhouse into a heated hydroponic haven where he kicks cabin fever and grows five varieties of lettuce in a 2,300-unit system.
Bolkas built his own nutrient-film-technique hydroponic system that grows plants in large channels of recirculating nutrient- and oxygen-rich water. He plants organic seeds in rock wool, a growing medium made of spun fibers of melted basaltic rock that are bound and compressed into large slabs. Its high mineral oil content and hydrophobic characteristics keep the roots from drowning as they are constantly submerged within the channels. The water is pumped from a large reservoir, down a long pipe, into the channels and back into the reservoir at a constant temperature of 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This recirculation uses 90 percent less water than regular farming.
Bolkas constantly monitors the water’s pH and nutrient content, making adjustments according to his unique formula. He yields in six weeks what would normally grow in eight. He explains, “The thing about hydroponics is that things grow quickly, but they grow wrong quickly, too.” Such a delicate experiment requires constant attention as Bolkas incorporates different organic techniques, such as releasing ladybugs and preying mantis to combat pests.
Boston, red Boston, arugula, oak leaf and a spring mix are among his most successful hydroponic lettuce varieties. “I’ll try anything that I think I can grow. I want to give people variety, so if I think I can grow it, I’ll give it a shot,” he explains while cleaning out a channel with certified-organic hydrogen peroxide. In the future he would like to try growing chives and strawberries.
The greenhouse also houses Bolkas’s orange, lemon, bay leaf and clementine trees along with the perennial plants of friends and neighbors throughout the winter. Visitors are as welcome as the plants, receiving full tours, freshly picked lettuce and bear hugs. It is easy to see Bolkas’s dedication to helping others demystify and understand the beauty of self-sufficiency as he consults a neighbor on how to winterize his fig trees and hands him a head of Boston lettuce on the (green)house. “It feels good to help out friends and family. If you need something, help yourself,” he says modestly. As his farm expands and his hydroponic system grows, Bolkas continues to build his reputation as a brilliant farmer and scientist. It’s innovators like Bolkas that ensure only the best and most freshly picked local foods are available even when the soil is nowhere in sight.
Visitors are more than welcome to come pick their own lettuce and get a tour of the farm. Thera Farms, 2256 Motor Parkway, Ronkonkoma, 631.478.5229