HARTFORD, Conn. – Some Connecticut berry farmers may soon be growing their crops in the dead of winter.
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A New Haven-based technology company, Agrivolution LLC, has received a $73,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with Connecticut farmers and determine the feasibility of year-round, indoor production.
Richard Fu, who began Agrivolution while a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, plans to use that money to research whether hydroponic techniques and others used in countries such as Japan can work in Connecticut. He said the goal is to expand Connecticut's share of the local produce market — and not just for berry farming.
"What we consume and what we buy at the grocery store is predominantly from other states," he said. "And we want to change that equation through the introduction of controlled environment agriculture."
Fu said he also hopes to show there is a market for Connecticut manufacturers to make equipment for indoor farming.
While indoor farming is widely used internationally, it has not become popular here, in part because of the cost of energy in the state, said Kevin Sullivan, who runs Chestnut Hill Nursery in Stafford and is a member of the Governor's Council for Agriculture.
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It can cost about $1 million per acre to set up a greenhouse that produces food, he said. The international models show that to run a viable commercial enterprise, a farmer would need at least seven acres, Sullivan said.
"To produce an acre of tomatoes, your electric bill goes to $150,000," he said.
Fu said part of his project will be working with the Connecticut fuel cell industry to try to reduce energy costs. He said fuel cells could become not only a cost-effective way to supply light and heat to indoor farms, but also become a source of needed carbon dioxide.
"First we need to show we can grow the strawberries indoors," he said. "Then we will attack the energy issues down the road."
The state Department of Agriculture says about 437 million pounds of strawberries are consumed annually in the Northeast. For most of the year, that crop is shipped in from California, Florida, Mexico and South America, and the berries often don't reach store shelves for a week after being picked.
The berry season in Connecticut runs for about three weeks during the summer. There were 149 active strawberry farms in Connecticut in 2012, making up a $3 million industry, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Officials say there is huge growth potential with indoor farming.
Sandra Rose, who runs Rose's Berry Farm in Glastonbury, is talking with Fu about being part of the project. Indoor farming would help her better control variables such as pests and water levels, she said. And anything that can help her extend the season could be a game-changer, she said.
"If I can get even a couple-week jump on the start of my season, that's more money in my pocket," she said. "In May, there are people who are salivating for that first red berry."