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November 10, 2011

 

Cheap electricity brings Finger Lakes Fresh to Groton

Company building 42,000-square-foot greenhouse in village to grow vegetables year-round

FreshBob Ellis/staff photographer
Mike Whitted moves a rack of leafy greens to a cart on Wednesday at Finger Lakes Fresh greenhouse on Pinckney Road, near Etna.

By STEVE HUGHES
Staff Reporter
shughes@cortlandstandardnews.net

GROTON — The Finger Lakes Fresh expansion in the village will become the company’s new headquarters once it is complete.
Finger Lakes Fresh is the marketing and production arm for Challenge Industries, an Ithaca-based, nonprofit organization that provides employment for people who struggle to find and keep a job.
Charles Hamilton, the social enterprise director for Challenge Industries, said the company needs to expand Finger Lakes Fresh because of increased demand and a decline in funding from the state.
“As an organization, we’re pushing to expand this business,” Hamilton said. Being a nonprofit means we rely heavily on state funding.”
The new facility will sit on just over 3 acres in the village of Groton’s industrial development park on Gerald Moses Drive, off Route 222.
The plant should be up and running quickly, Hamilton said.
“We’re planning on breaking ground in the spring and we should be producing by the end of the summer,” he said.
The company decided to expand in Groton because the village was easy to work with and it has lower electricity rates, Hamilton said. Groton has its own power utility that provides significantly lower rates than other area utility companies.
“To grow lettuce in New York in November, you need light,” he said. “The lower rates were a big part of the equation.”
Finger Lakes Fresh has over $600,000 in revenue, according to its website. Hamilton declined to say how much money the new greenhouse would generate.
The proposed greenhouse is going to be about 42,000-square feet, more than five times the size of the company’s current greenhouse in Dryden.
The company operates an 8,000-square-foot greenhouse with 16 employees in Dryden on Route 13. That greenhouse will still be used after the expansion is complete.
The new facility will also house the company’s main packaging plant and technical services.
The company is relying on a $375,000 federally-funded grant as well as loans and private investment to complete the project. The project should cost approximately $1.5 million.
The new facility will create 14 new jobs. At least half of those will be people with barriers to employment and that number should grow, Hamilton said.
Hamilton said that Finger Lakes Fresh serves Challenge Industries in two ways.
“We provide employment and training for people who have significant barriers to employment.” he said. “The greenhouse also funds some of our other programs.”
Challenge Industries employs over 800 individuals at approximately 300 different employers.
That includes people with developmental disabilities, people for whom English is a second language and those who have struggled to keep a job in the past, Hamilton said.
The company also offers mock interviews, job training and job coaching. The three main employers are Finger Lakes Fresh, the Ithaca College dish rooms and the Cornell custodial staff.
The expansion means more fresh, leafy greens for local customers. Finger Lakes Fresh sells its products in six different states to local supermarkets like Wegmans. Their products are also used in Cortland Regional Medical Center’s cafeteria.
It also means more employment opportunities for people with barriers to employment.
The company uses advanced hydroponic technologies to grow Boston lettuce, pak choi, basil, wild arugula and other plants.
“We grow faster than anyone we know of,” he said. “We have a precise level of lighting, temperature, humidity and nutrients that is all controlled by computers.”
The Dryden greenhouse was built in 1999 as a Cornell University research facility. The building was the first commercial-scale controlled environment agriculture greenhouse in the world.
Challenge Industries provided workers from the beginning and took over the greenhouse in 2005 after it became more of a business than a research project.
Today it produces over 400 tons of lettuce and other vegetables per year.

 

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