BY HUGH BAILEY
Hearst Connecticut Media
It’s a working farm contained in a 2,200-square-foot room. Outside conditions – weather, season, available sunlight – have no bearing on production. And it could soon be common in cities nationwide.
MetroCrops, a three-person operation based in an old factory on River Street in Bridgeport, is employing hydroponics under LED lights to grow crops of lettuce and kale, which it sells to local restaurants and at farmers markets. And it is just getting started.
“Every pound we produce is a profitable pound,” said Steve Domyan, of Norwalk, who owns the company with his wife, Nancy. “We just don’t have enough pounds.”
The company last week celebrated its newly received certificate of occupancy, bringing life to a building that had been idled by the loss of manufacturing.
An electrical engineer by training, Steve Domyan started the company and is leading its development; Nancy handles the behind-the-scenes work that allows the company to operate.
The other full-time employee is Laura Sterling, a 2013 University of Connecticut graduate who majored in agriculture and worked with the company during a trial phase at the Storrs Depot campus. She serves as marketing assistant but in reality takes part in every phase of the business, from changing out water reservoirs to cleaning the metal frames on which the plants grow.
“You really do everything here,” Sterling said.
Each unit, or rig, can be stacked eight trays high full of plants. The climate-controlled grow room could fit twice as many rigs, and the entire system is replicable in any space.
“The room within a room concept is key,” Domyan said, because it allows the company to have maximum control over the space.
The farm uses city water, which it pumps through a reverse osmosis filter that purifies it before a mix of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus is added back in. The mixture is based on research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that accounts for the plants’ needs.
“We’re giving them optimal conditioning,” Domyan said. “These are just the nutrients they want.”
The company has benefited from good timing. It set up shop soon after the state legalized medical marijuana, which led to Bridgeport amending its regulations to allow indoor growing in industrial zones. That change saved potentially months of zoning hearings for a use that didn’t fit into any other existing category.
Hydroponics is not novel, but calibrating the nutrients for individual plants combined with the customized LED setup makes for a new field. Domyan said the company has filed a number of provisional patents, with more likely on the way.
From seed to salad, lettuce takes about 26 days, and once cut can regrow in 10 days. After three crops, the plants are disposed of and new seeds are started. “You need a crop every week in a rolling cycle,” he said, because customers want dependable products. “If you have a minimum of four rigs, you can make that happen.”
The business has been built on grants and loans from the state and federal governments, and only this year has started to make money on its own. The cost of setup, including finding a home, building equipment and testing the process, came to about a half-million dollars, Domyan said.
The company is seeking investors to allow for more production, and it already has a list of interested customers – it had to turn down some restaurants because it doesn’t yet produce enough.
The months ahead will tell a lot about the company, Nancy Domyan said. “We’ll know by the end of the summer if it’s going to work,” she said.
Steve Domyan’s engineering experience helped him devise the rigs to maximize efficiency in a way other indoor farms – mostly greenhouses – simply cannot.
“The key is you don’t do indoors what you do outdoors,” he said.
Indoor farming represents a small but growing field nationwide, and competition will likely increase in coming years. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s CityFarm project, for one, aims to create an economically feasible, soil-free urban farming system – not so different from the MetroCrops model – that cities could adapt for their own use.
‘Does it look good?’
Greenhouses, like traditional farms, tend to spread horizontally, with each plant taking what it can from the available light source. MetroCrops brings the light to the plants, inches away, ensuring they get the nourishment they need to grow.
The sales business is underway. Ralph ‘n’ Rich’s, in downtown Bridgeport, and Il Palio, in Shelton, are buying MetroCrops products, which have also been sold at farmers markets in Trumbull, New Canaan and Milford. The company is in the process of negotiating with grocery stores.
Its appeal derives in large part from proximity. There’s no need to ship produce from California to a central facility and out to the stores – lettuce could be picked in the morning and on store shelves the same day.
The other major appeal is quality. MetroCrops is for a variety of reasons focusing on high-end produce – there is no iceberg lettuce emerging from its facility. “We’re growing beautiful stuff,” Steve Domyan said. “You can talk about technology, but the real question is, does it look good?”
Customers say they are impressed. “They came by and told us what they were going to do, and it sounded interesting,” said Ralph Silano, co-founder of Ralph ‘n’ Rich’s, who said the restaurant buys the company’s dwarf kale.
“They’re great products; we’re just waiting for them to ramp up production,” he said. “If he grows more, we’ll keep using it.”
Indoor farming has its skeptics, including those who question whether farmers can know, and replicate, exactly what plants are absorbing from the sun and soil, and those who say the high electricity needs make up for whatever energy is saved by compacting the process.
But it’s not just tractors and plows that indoor farming eliminates. Gone, too, is the fuel for the hundreds or thousands of truck miles that must be traveled for food to go from the ground to a dinner plate. There are no pesticides needed because there are no pests.
And food-borne illnesses, which sicken thousands of people every year, are a nonfactor. Though food grown with hydroponics cannot be officially classified as organic, the seeds themselves are, and every step of the plants’ life cycle is carefully monitored.
Still, MetroCrops is not in a position to replace traditional farms. Everything it grows today is small, to best take advantage of the efficiencies offered by the LED-lit trays. Far fewer tomatoes, for instance, could be grown on a rig than leaves of lettuce.
Electricity is by far the company’s top expense. “It dictates what we can and cannot grow,” Steve Domyan said. “How much space something takes up dictates whether or not it can be scaled up.”
The building, once used to make wire products, can handle the required electric load because of its past industrial use, but other structures that were never factories would likely need upgrades, he said. Connecticut’s high electricity prices are daunting but give good reason to think the venture could be even more successful in cities that don’t have prohibitive prices.
The task now is to ramp up production in Bridgeport before setting up a business to spread the technology anywhere someone wants to practice it.
MetroCrops is getting into the manufacturing business, planning to ship prefabricated rigs that anyone can assemble and offering training to get them off the ground.
“It’s all modular. We can ship the rigs as a pile of stuff to be put together,” Domyan said, estimating the cost of four rigs that would allow for weekly produce at about $60,000.
He said he can envision a time in five years when dozens of cities have taken advantage of the company’s breakthroughs and are running thriving businesses in once-forgotten buildings. “The point is to take this technology out there,” he said.
Hearst Connecticut Media includes four daily newspapers: Connecticut Post, Greenwich Time, The Advocate (Stamford) and The News Times (Danbury). See ctpost.com for more from this reporter.