May 1, 2017
Focus: Startups & Entrepreneurs

Hydroponic farming takes root in CT

PHOTO | Steve Jensen
PHOTO | Steve Jensen
Cheshire-based Maple Lane Farms II co-owners Allyn Brown (left) and Brant Smith inspect a foam float holding heads of hydroponically grown bibb lettuce nearly ready for market.
PHOTO | Steve Jensen
Examples of the bibb lettuce produced by Maple Lane Farms. The lettuce is sold to grocery stores, including Stop & Shop, as well as wholesalers.

Connecticut produces a mere 1 percent or so of the fruits and vegetables eaten by its residents.

That's a statistic state agricultural experts and producers want to change.

One way they are hoping to move the needle is through a type of controlled environment agriculture, called hydroponic farming, which is an eco-friendly way of growing produce in a soilless medium, with nutrients and water.

Hydroponic farming is gaining popularity in the state and nationwide, particularly in response to consumers' shift toward healthy eating and locally grown produce, rising food prices and extreme weather conditions making it harder for traditional farming.

Joe Geremia, known as the go-to guy for hydroponics in the state, said because Connecticut has a small amount of farmable acres, it makes sense to turn to hydroponic farming.

"It's nearly impossible [for Connecticut] to feed itself," said Geremia, who is a partner in Four Season Farm LLC, which will develop 10 acres of land in Suffield as a startup hydroponic farm. The farm, which the state has invested $3 million in, is expected to generate 40 jobs over the next two years and produce millions of pounds of tomatoes.

"It's a perfect thing for Connecticut. We can do more per acre, if we can do it indoors," said Geremia, who runs seven acres of greenhouses in Wallingford.

Geremia and others say more Connecticut farmers and greenhouse operators are adopting controlled environment agriculture.

"More people are embracing indoor technology in farming," Geremia said. "The trend is upward."

Hydroponic farming industry revenues, which reached $821.1 million nationwide in 2016, have grown at an annual rate of about 4.5 percent since 2011, according to research from IBISWorld.

And of the 2,347 hydroponic farm businesses that existed in 2016, 3.8 percent operated in Connecticut, according to IBISWorld.

Four Season Farm LLC, which is expected to break ground this spring, plans to produce 5.75 million pounds of tomatoes the first year and 7.5 million pounds by the third year. The farm plans to add cucumbers, peppers and micro-greens.

In a February publication put out by the state Department of Agriculture, Commissioner Steven Reviczky said the Suffield project could lead the way to transforming Connecticut's greenhouse industry.

"Hydroponic and other types of indoor farming are becoming increasingly effective alternatives to traditional growing methods in many parts of the world," Reviczky said. "Connecticut has a well-established greenhouse industry that I believe could make the transition to growing food 12 months a year, and has the customer base to support it."


Hydroponic farmer Allyn Brown, who has been producing lettuce on his Cheshire farm for three years, and on his Preston farm for six years, said there is a resurgence of indoor agriculture.

"It's a growing business in the northeast," Brown said. "We run 52 weeks a year. On an acre, you produce more indoors than out."

It's seen as a win-win for both consumer and farmer, farmers say.

Consumers — who are increasingly pushing for fresh vegetables and fruits year-round — gain by getting locally sourced fresh produce whenever they want it.

Hydroponic farmers winbecause instead of growing crops only four or five months of the year, they can be year-round producers, leading to new and more revenue opportunities.

"The reality is, if we are going to provide more local food when people want it, we have to figure out how to do it off-season," said Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, and a vice chairman of the Governor's Council for Agricultural Development.

The Governor's Council, which was created in 2011, is looking to create a strategic plan for Connecticut agriculture, including looking at ways to increase by 5 percent the amount of consumer dollars spent on Connecticut-grown farm products over the next few years through 2020.

Talmage says while there are disadvantages to hydroponic farming, like high labor, energy and transportation costs, Connecticut does have several things going for it.

For one, Connecticut has a very robust greenhouse industry, which means that facilities already exist for hydroponic farming.

Connecticut is also in a "high-market corridor," between Boston and New York and near Philadelphia and Washington.

When dealing with perishable items, it's good to be closer to the markets you are supplying, Talmage said. "It's crazy when our food travels 1,500 miles to get to us. Connecticut is in a position to do this better than other New England states."

Brown, who owns Maple Lane Farms in Preston and Maple Lane Farms II in Cheshire, agreed that Connecticut is in a good geographic position for hydroponic farming.

His two farms produce 1.5 million heads of hydroponically grown bibb lettuce annually.

"It's got a great flavor," he said of the lettuce that is made without pesticides, is dirt free and stays fresh for a long period of time.

"Chefs really like to use the lettuce (which comes attached to the root ball) because it's so fresh and it is all usable," Brown said.

Maple Lane sells the product to grocery stores like Stop & Shop and LaBonne's as well as to wholesalers.

"They want it 12 months a year," Brown said, of the grocery stores.

The demand is a great thing for local farmers, and farmers hope the desire for local produce continues.

"You are supporting local agriculture as you purchase it," Brown said.

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