A New Crop of Connecticut Farms Grow Produce Without Soil

Ever heard of the indoor farm that didn't need any soil? Well, take a look around, because one might be springing up in your neighborhood sometime soon.

There's a new crop of growers in Connecticut who are turning traditional farming on its head by taking plants inside and leaving the dirt at the door. Some are calling it the future of growing.

The current trend for soil-less agriculture is taking two forms. First, there's hydroponics. Plants grow in material such as coconut husks or gravel and get mineral nutrients from irrigation water. Second, there's aquaponics, which introduces fish into the growing system. Fish in tanks produce waste that is then converted into nutrients for the plants. The plants in turn provide a filter for the water that the fish live in.

A key advantage of hydroponics and aquaponics is that fresh produce can be grown where a typical farm would not be possible. Like Bridgeport's East End, for instance. The neighborhood is classified by the United States Department of Agriculture as a food desert, with a significant number of low-income residents living more than a mile from a supermarket.

A huge project is under way to create 80,000 square feet of hydroponic greenhouses as the centerpiece of a 3.4-acre development called Heroes Village Urban Agriculture Center. The $4 million undertaking will employ dozens of military veterans to grow the produce, which will be sold to local businesses and in the Center's retail facility. "It's a win-win for everyone in terms of employment and better food," says Sean Richardson, chief business affairs officer for Heroes Village LLC. "It's super fresh. It's better than organic." Pesticides will not be used and 90 percent of the water in the system will get recycled.

The Bridgeport greenhouses will be launched in the fall and will grow an estimated 800,000 pounds of lettuce, vine crops (such as cherry tomatoes) and speciality herbs annually, Richardson says. Master growers will oversee the farm and UCONN will offer agricultural training and education for workers and the local community. Heroes Village also plans to build a hydroponic farm and restaurant in Newtown, and to redevelop an old factory building in Danbury for the same purpose.

In Meriden, an organization supporting children and adults with developmental disabilities started its own soil-free growing project — with fish tanks — in early 2012. In fact, the aquaponic arrangement at The Arc of Meriden-Wallingford has been so successful that plans are afoot to install a commercial aquaponic system in a 25,000-square-foot building at the site. Currently they grow 36 head of lettuce a week and with the new expansion this will leap to almost 280 per week.

The Arc installed the system to teach its patrons specific skills that may help them get jobs. "They get to experiment with so many different pieces" of the system, for example looking after the fish, cleaning the tanks and planting seedlings, says Pam Fields, executive director of the organization. She says the educational benefits of aquaponics extend to schools too. "It's a great way to give students tools for a future career," she says. One Meriden school is considering introducing an aquaponic system over the summer, she notes.

A boon of this method of cultivation is that grow beds are at waist-high level, says Fields, making them easier to reach than traditional planting in the soil. Another benefit of the aquaponic system is that it's therapeutic. The Arc's greenhouse setup includes a river, a small waterfall and hanging systems near glass walls. "It makes it very relaxing," says Fields.

A major plus of indoor farming is that the growing season is year-round. The Arc's produce — mostly lettuce and basil — is sold at Meriden Farmers Market and at The Arc Eatery, an on-site breakfast and lunch spot. Last year The Arc also supplied lettuce to a diner in Middletown. In the future the organization aims to breed and sell the fish in the tanks, such as tilapia, to restaurants. Koi, which are also typically used in aquaponics, can be sold as decorative fish, Fields says.

Keen gardener and farm owner Rob Torcellini currently has some 60 koi and a few goldfish swimming in his 1,000-gallon tank at Bigelow Brook Farm, in Eastford, some 40 miles east of Hartford. "I stumbled across aquaponics", he says. A couple of years ago he took a friend's advice and added a few fish to his greenhouse water tanks to gobble up mosquitoes. His interest developed from there and he was "easily converted," he says.

Torcellini, northeast region chairman of The Aquaponics Association, has been building his aquaponic growing system and domed greenhouse since his first experiment with goldfish. In April the aquaponics cheerleader opened his greenhouse to the public as part of a nationwide "Tour de Tanks" event; some 250 people visited, among them several traditional farmers. Even in April, the grow beds were "already producing lettuce, tomatoes and all kinds of great things", Torcellini says.

He says one of the chief benefits of aquaponics is that all the water is reused in a closed-loop system, making it popular with growers in places with water restrictions like Arizona and Texas. And while New York and Connecticut don't have the same rainfall issues, "people are now starting to catch onto it," he says.

Aquaponics isn't a new idea. Bill Duesing, organic advocate and executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, says he first came across a "very elegant" aquaponic growing system in the 1970s. Still, the organic farmer from Oxford says he's not interested in pursuing this method of cultivation himself because he's leery of the amount of energy consumed and the break in the connection with the land and soil.

Torcellini says the energy costs for his greenhouse and growing system are limited. He spent $800 keeping the temperature of the water in the fish tank between 55 and 60 degrees during the winter, and as for electricity consumption, he says it's "not super-expensive," using only 2.4 kilowatts per day. Solar panels contribute some of the power, he says. Fields, of The Arc, says electricity costs are minimal.

However, Torcellini concedes that start-up costs, including the expense of growing media for the beds, can be a barrier for beginners. He has spent $45,000 on his greenhouse and aquaponic setup, which he describes as "fairly elaborate", though he says a smaller hobbyist system using recycled materials can be constructed for a fraction of the cost.

There is another small challenge, he admits. Even if a gardener wanted to use pesticides for problems such as aphids and white flies, which can still get into greenhouses, they can't because the chemicals get into the water and harm the fish. Plus there's a lot to learn in the early days of setting up a system, for example in balancing the number of fish with the amount of plants.

Still, the beauty of the system is that once it's in full flow, with any initial problems resolved, the workload is much lower than it would be for soil beds; no digging out weeds, for example. "Once you're up and running, there's very little maintenance after that," says Torcellini. "In the long-term there's a lot less labor involved. It's relatively easy to grow this way."

Fields points to an additional advantage: cutting down the environmental cost of transporting fresh produce to urban areas. "It's the future for growing," she says.