By Martha Creegan

BERLIN — It’s a go. The permits are in hand and the financing is in place. Construction on the site for the Northern Country Growers’ greenhouse project will start soon, maybe as early as next week, said Dr. Richard Rosen.

Rosen, chief executive officer of AmericanAgEnergy, outlined the Berlin project at the North Country Council’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy meeting in Gorham last week. Northern Country Growers is a subsidiary of AmericanAgEnergy.

The project calls for two high-tech hydroponic greenhouses, each covering about 10 acres. The company expects to produce eight millions pounds of tomatoes and 15 million heads of lettuce at the site off the East Milan Road.

Northern New Hampshire has a long dark season and lots of cold-temperature days — not what you would think of as primary growing conditions. But, Rosen said that these conditions are just right for his greenhouse project. Northern Country Growers' produce will not depend on sunlight, and the cool temperatures reduce the risk of bacteria infestation. He said hot weather is an enemy.

The 172-acre site itself is ideal because it is flat, although only about 43 acres on the southern end will be used due to wetlands and floodplain concerns on the remainder of the site. The location is ideal because there is access to natural gas.

“We like it here a lot and we think there is an opportunity for us to do more here,” said Rosen. The key is to find a site that is flat, has access to natural gas and is approximately 100 acres.

The project is a self-contained, sustainable growing enterprise that reuses its waste products and is not an environmental threat to its neighbors. Rosen said the lighting is a highly developed system that will not annoy those living nearby. He said rainwater and snow melt are recycled for irrigation. Waste heat is recycled to heat greenhouses, and the project will use the C02 emissions to generate power. Rosen said an increased CO2 level also improves crop yields.

Rosen told the committee that 95 percent of the vegetables consumed in New England are trucked in from California or Texas, with some coming in from foreign countries. He explained that each truck’s round trip burns approximately 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Locating in New England and shipping within the Northeast reduces oil usage by hundreds of gallons.

Rosen said ideally the company will limit travel time to its customers to eight hours. This will enable the product to be picked one day and on the customer’s shelf the next, whereas tomatoes picked on the West Coast are in route to New England for about seven days. A good news indicator for the project’s success is that Rosen said all of the product has been sold. Customers primarily include wholesalers and supermarkets, but Rosen said the University of New Hampshire, the University of Massachusetts, and a number of restaurants have expressed an interest. He said the company’s chief financial officer wants to limit the volume of product purchased by any one customer to 25 percent of inventory. Rosen said the project is “less interested in producing volume and focused on taste.”

Regarding local access to the tomatoes and lettuce, Rosen said he will deliver the product anywhere by truck. There will be no roadside sales at the site.

“We need to limit traffic and control access to the site,” said Rosen. The closed environment requires strictly controlled access to limit the possibility of plant infestation.

A question was raised concerning creating competition for local growers. Rosen noted that the project’s output would be competing with institutional growers.

“There will be an impact in California,” said Rosen. “Some grower will be shipping a few less tomatoes.”

While the impact on local economies is difficult to predict, Rosen did discuss the job opportunities created during construction and the full-time jobs created by the project.

When asked if he would be hiring a general contractor, Rosen said AmericanAgEnergy would be the general manager. He said the company wants to hire locally. Contact has already been made, for example, with local welders for the 50 miles of piping required. As for local jobs, Rosen said the company plans to hire approximately 80 people for full-time positions at an annual salary ranging from $30,000 to $200,000. They will have benefits including health care. All employees will be trained on site for a multiple set of skills, he said.

The North Country Council’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy committee voted to approve the Northern Country Growers' project for priority project status. The committee considers three characteristics or the “Triple Bottom Line” of each project approved for the status. According to the North Country Council’s documentation, the committee looks at the “Healthy Community” effect, which includes relationships with employees, the local community, consumers and stakeholders. The “Natural Environment” effect considers the use of resources, regarding energy, pollution, waste, and water. And the third concern is “Economic Vitality,” which looks at the financial aspects of the business. Underlying all three characteristics is the resiliency of the business, its ability to adapt and sustain is operations.

While Rosen said the financing is in place for this project, the advantage of acquiring this status is that it makes the project eligible for federal funding and other funding sources should the need arise.

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