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How a new greenhouse project in Berlin aims to help produce more local food sustainably

American Ag Energy
American Ag Energy

Construction is expected to start in the coming months on two large greenhouses in Berlin that could yield up to 15 million heads of lettuce and 8 million pounds of tomatoes annually.

The project by Boston-based American Ag Energy aims to supply local grocery stores with produce as early as next spring, using two 10-acre greenhouses that will operate year-round.

“I think there's just so many advantages to rebuilding our food system to encourage a more local model,” said project manager Jack Daley.

Right now, only 12% of the food New Englanders eat is grown in the region, according to New England Food Solutions. Climate advocates and farmers have said local food production models can bolster climate resiliency.

The salad greens produced in the Berlin greenhouse would account for only 1% of lettuce in New Englanders’ diets, according to American Ag Energy CEO Richard Rosen.

But Daley said indoor food production can help meet local food needs sustainably.

“When you look at a lot of the challenges the globe is facing — supply chain, water scarcity — really all of those challenges can be met by indoor growing,” Daley said.

Indoor food production uses only a fraction of the water used by outdoor farming models, not to mention less land, according to Rosen. Studies have found that greenhouses and indoor farms have reduced water use by anywhere from 90-95%.

The operation will be powered by a natural gas pipeline once used by Berlin’s paper mills and will use the waste heat produced in electricity generation to heat the greenhouses. They’ll also make use of rainwater for irrigation.

“Additionally, we recover the carbon dioxide that is generated in the production of the waste heat, and it is applied to help the photosynthetic process that allows plants to grow,” Rosen said.

Planning for the project started in 2017. After meeting with Berlin community members, going through state permitting processes, obtaining EPA permits and entering into a tax agreement with the city, American Ag Energy expects to start construction on their first greenhouse in July or August.

The operation will be run by a subsidiary of American Ag Energy called North Country Growers. Daley said it is expected to provide 80 to 85 jobs.

The company is also looking at other sites in Berlin and hopes to construct an additional 30 acres of greenhouse space.

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