Published May 12. 2011 4:00AM Updated May 13. 2011 11:18AM
Preston — As a farmer, Allyn Brown is always looking out for the latest trends and ways to diversify in his ever-tough weather dependent business.
Right now, everyone wants locally grown fruits and vegetables for better flavor, lower energy costs and to preserve local farms and jobs. Brown has found a way to meet that demand.
In a large, high-tech greenhouse near his small farm office, 10,000 bright green heads of lettuce float atop rectangular foam rafts that have evenly spaced square holes allowing the lettuce roots to reach down into a pond of freshly circulated fertilized water below. In one corner, juvenile starters emerge with a few leaves poking above the foam. Slightly larger heads grow in another section. Three of the rectangular 1-foot deep ponds hold the heads that will grow to full size to be harvested.
Each one resembles a bright green rose in full bloom, its pedals spreading out from the center.
"Living lettuce," the label for the plastic package for a Maple Lane Farms hydroponic head of lettuce said. "A pick above the rest. Soft, tender leaves. No bitter taste! Melts in your mouth! Terrific in salads, wraps or sandwiches."
In normal farming terms, you would say that this is the first growing season for Maple Lane Farms' latest venture in hydroponic lettuce production. But since this is a year-round, nonstop operation, it's more proper to say that the operation is just gearing up, Brown said.
The first heads were harvested in December, and the farm in Preston now harvests and packages 2,200 heads of lettuce per week. The lettuce packages are sold at some Connecticut Stop & Shop supermarkets. Brown said he doesn't produce enough yet to fill all of the chain's Connecticut stores. At the Norwich store, the lettuce sells for $2.99, and last week was on sale for two for $5. Brown called store officials at the start of the sale assuring he would have enough supply for the sale.
"I built this as a trial," Brown said. "It's not a huge production. It's gotten a really good response."
Maple Lane Farms received a $32,500 Community Investment Act grant from the state Department of Agriculture last August to help cover the $90,000 cost to convert a former mushroom growing facility at the farm into a hydroponic greenhouse. The idea was part of the agency's farm transition program, a concept that fit Brown's plans perfectly.
Last week, he applied for a matching $40,000 farm reinvestment grant from the state Department of Agriculture in the hopes of doubling the size of the hydroponic lettuce operation. That expansion actually would cost about $100,000, so Brown is not worried about the match. If he gets the grant, he could build the expansion this year, and be in production by fall.
He is examining some nice red lettuce varieties he thinks would sell well in the region in addition to the green variety.
Brown is not done studying hydroponic possibilities. He recently attended the Canadian Produce Marketing Association convention in Montreal. With such a short growing season up north, "there are a lot of greenhouses in Canada," Brown said.
He is looking at hydroponic possibilities for peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. For that, he would need a new location, with flat land - it's very difficult to build a raised water bed on slanted ground - somewhere along a natural gas line. That could be a few years off, but Brown is confident he could obtain the investment dollars and a location for that much larger expansion.
"I look at all these colored peppers imported from Israel and Holland and I say 'We can't compete with that?'" Brown said. "Greenhouse products are good. If you can get a good greenhouse tomato in the winter, it's well worth it."