High hopes: Lettuce Dream breaks ground

By TONY BROWN Staff writer
Maryville Daily Forum

Maryville’s business and civic leaders turned out in force Friday for a groundbreaking ceremony marking the recent start of construction for Lettuce Dream, a community-based effort to create a hydroponic greenhouse complex that is to provide vocational training for people with developmental and cognitive disabilities.

When phase one is completed this summer, the three-acre campus will consist of two 35-by-96-foot greenhouses and a 32-foot-by-62-foot operations building.

If all goes as scheduled, said Lettuce Dream board member Wayne Pierson, the first crop of lettuce, which is to be sold to area markets, restaurants, and dining services operations, will be planted shortly thereafter.

Production is to continue on a year-round basis.

Pierson said that two horticulture students at Northwest Missouri State University have been engaged as interns to help set up the hydroponic cultivation system once the greenhouse exteriors are completed.

Hydroponics is an alternative agriculture technology in which crops are grown in nutrient-enriched water instead of tilled earth.

Lettuce Dream President Diane Francis, who founded the organization three years ago, said the initiative began with a group of individuals and families who felt area young people coping with developmental disabilities had too few opportunities for job-focused training after leaving high school.

After several meetings, Francis said, members of the budding organization began asking, “Why just talk about this. Let’s do something about it.”

Since then, through a combination of private donations, trust and foundation gifts, government grants, and the sale of Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits through the Missouri Department of Economic Development, the organization has raised more than $600,000.

The ultimate goal is construction of up to 16 greenhouses and support facilities on the Lettuce Dream property, which was donated by Mark and Myles Burnsides, a local father-son business team whose Maryville East Side Development is behind the emergence of an adjoining retail district near the intersection of East First Street and the Highway 71 bypass.

“The only thing limiting us is our imagination,” Pierson said during Friday’s ceremony.

While Lettuce Dream is a non-profit enterprise likely to create, at most, a handful of jobs, both Nodaway County Economic Development Director Josh McKim and City Manager Greg McDanel said the initiative’s potential goes well beyond its humanitarian impact.

McKim said that, aside from highlighting the community’s willingness to meet local needs with local solutions, Lettuce Dream, if successful, could serve as a pilot project demonstrating the viability of alternative agriculture enterprises generally.

Any project, McKim said, that brings more “value-added agriculture” to the Maryville region should be regarded as a positive in terms of economic growth.

For his part, McDanel said Lettuce Dream will provide restaurants and food retailers with fresh, locally grown produce while, along with the NoCoMo Industries sheltered workshop and other agencies, aiding citizens who face special challenges when it comes to finding and holding a job.

From a planning standpoint, McDanel added that the Lettuce Dream operation provides “a perfect buffer” between a strip of light industry, including Consumers Oil Co. and MFA Agri Services, along Depot Street, and a retail area south of Depot and north of East First that appears poised for more growth.

Francis said Friday that, for the moment, Lettuce Dream remains focused on construction, but that plans are beginning to move forward for accepting the organization’s first class of trainees.

She said the number of clients served at any one time remains to be determined, as does the format for a planned series of vocational modules designed to lead toward employment by area businesses and industries.

The organization probably won’t begin accepting applications until later in the summer. Francis said about 25 families have inquired about enrollment.

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