Ambitious plan for greenhouse produce flounders
BrightFarms Inc. will start up again in April
Kathryn Finegan Clark
The giant high-tech greenhouse that was supposed to put fresh vegetables on local tables all year long stands alone and deserted on a snow-covered field in Lower Makefield, its frozen pipes broken.
Residents, especially those who have opposed construction of the 56,000-square-foot glass greenhouse on the 234-acre Patterson farm they want preserved, believe it has failed in its mission.
But a spokesman for BrightFarms Inc., said Tuesday, the company is merely upgrading and will begin production with a new system as early as April.
Toby Tiktinsky, the company’s spokesman, said BrightFarms is planning a major upgrade and installing a new type of technology to grow baby lettuces, baby kale and arugula. He said the new technology is based on expertise coming out of northern Italy. The hydroponic growing process nourishes plants with nutrient-treated water and uses no soil.
Tiktinsky said BrightFarms had supplied produce locally when it was operating but is looking to use a better method. He said the company decided to close down the greenhouse during the holiday season before installing the new technology.
The local project was the New York-based startup company’s first large-scale operation. BrightFarms began its business designing and building rooftop greenhouses in New York City with the idea of moving produce to market the same day it is picked. Its largest greenhouse in the city measured only 3,000 square feet.
The Lower Makefield facility was its first large project. Tiktinsky said BrightFarms is building a greenhouse in St. Paul. Others are either planned or under way in Brooklyn, St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., Oklahoma City, Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis, according to the BrightFarms web site.
The company usually partners with local grocers and, in fact, was contacted and brought to Lower Makefield by James McCaffrey of McCaffrey’s Markets. The local BrightFarms facility has worked with McCaffrey’s and John Vena Inc., a Philadelphia wholesale specialty produce business. Neither have had shipments from BrightFarms for at least three months, according to several sources.
The Patterson farm, owned by Lower Makefield Township has been a political football for years with the township trying to develop it and a group of residents wanting it preserved as farmland
Since the time it was first considered, Lower Makefield residents have questioned the viability of the greenhouse. Local farmers refused to work for the company because they were skeptical about the project’s outcome. The company finally had to hire growers from out of state. They were replaced. Crops failed and were replaced, too. Hydroponics is a specialized field and not simply greenhouse growing, according to the farmers.
“Farmland is a wonderful resource. We can’t replicate it and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Donna Doan, the farmer’s daughter who has led the crusade to have the Patterson Farm preserved.”
She said, “This is prime soil. The state Department of Agriculture classifies it in the top 2 percent of quality soils in Pennsylvania.”
She said, “It makes no sense to put an operation that uses no soil on top of prime soil that could be farmed. It may work for urban growing, but it’s not working here.”
Lower Makefield Township Supervisor Jeff Benedetto agreed with her. “It’s totally ridiculous,” he said, noting he’s not opposed to the hydroponic concept, but to its placement on the Patterson farm.
He favors farmland preservation and said he has voted against BrightFarms’ plan since it was first introduced. “I’m concerned for the residents of Lower Makefield who are not getting the produce they were promised.”
Donna Doan said her late father, Duane Doan Jr., worked on the Patterson farm for 50 years. Thomas and Alice Patterson had purchased the farm in the 1940s and later merged with the adjacent Doan farm. Fifty years later the township pressed Patterson to sell the property but the farmer repeatedly declined. Developers also approached him and he turned down millions, Doan said.
Finally, in 1998, the township “took” the farm, condemning it by Eminent Domain, paying $7.2 million, a quarter of the sum Patterson had declined from developers.
Patterson was then 95 and said he was “too old to fight.” He lived on the farm until his death in 2000. The township did not move to preserve the land until last year, 15 years after its purchase. A sign on the farm claims 234 acres has been placed in a state farmland preservation program, but Doan said, in fact, only about half that acreage has been enrolled in the program.
Patterson Farm is on Mirror Lake Road and it stretches from Stony Hill Road to the Newtown-Yardley Road.
In 2012 the township leased several acres to BrightFarms for the 56,000-square-foot greenhouse, helped BrightFarms get the necessary permits and ousted a local farmer who had been renting the land to grow his own crops.
Calls to Lower Makefield Township were not returned on Tuesday.
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