The temperature outside may be in the teens, but inside Green Mountain Harvest Hydroponics' quarter-acre greenhouse, it's harvest time all year-round.
David Hartshorn and two partners started the Waitsfield operation last year on what used to be his folks' dairy farm. Although he still runs an organic vegetable farm down the road, he's convinced hydroponics is the future.
"My organic farm, I have a disaster every single year of some sort," Hartshorn said. "I think you're going to find that this country is going to be moving toward climate protected agriculture in a big way, based on fuel, based on climate change."
In hydroponics, the plants grow without soil, fed by nutrient-rich mineral solution in water. Starting from a seed, they are able to grow a full-size head of lettuce in about five weeks.
The growing technique has been adopted by NASA for future space missions and is used at U.S. bases in Antarctica.
It has its pros and cons. The neat rows of basil, lettuce and kale don't need to contend with weeds and most of the pests you find in the garden. On the other hand, aphids and other diseases must still be closely managed.
Hartshorn and his crew are continually testing different seed varieties to see which do best.
Although not fully installed yet, Hartshorn says solar and biomass will help keep the carbon footprint of this operation as low as possible.
"It's the perfect fit for Vermont if we can use our own biomass to run it and if we can put up solar panels to make a balance of the electricity," he said.
Green Mountain Harvest is by no means the first to grow hydroponic vegetables in the state, but they say they are the first to take on lettuce and other greens in a big way. The growth of hydroponics and how it fits with national organic standards has been a growing controversy. Because there is no soil involved, NOFA Vermont does not certify hydroponic crops. But nationally, the policy is not as well defined. Vermont organic growers met last week and approved a resolution pushing to adopt a national policy in line with Vermont's. Hartshorn says he doesn't see a conflict between the two methods.
"I have no qualms about calling this non-organic. They both have great attributes," he said. "The great thing about this is it's more efficient."
There is also some agreement that hydroponic vegetables have less flavor and smell than their soil-bound cousins. But that hasn't stopped a number of area schools, restaurants and CSAs from signing up for a share of Hartshorn's harvest.
Plans call for tripling the size of the operation within the next few years. And as for vegetable variety, Hartshorn says the sky's the limit.
"Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Beans. You can grow beans and melons and strawberries," he said.
The more than half-a-million in startup costs for the Waitsfield operation were made possible with a low-interest loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority.
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