Maryville Daily Forum – Tony Brown
Construction of the proposed Lettuce Dream hydroponic greenhouse complex, envisioned as providing vocational training for people with cognitive and developmental disabilities, is under way and on track for completion this summer, according to Wayne Pierson, vice president of the non-profit organization established four years ago by a group of local volunteers.
Pierson said phase one of the initiative, which will consist of two 35-by-96-foot greenhouses and a 32-foot-by-62-foot operations building, could be completed as soon as July 1 with the first crop of lettuce scheduled for planting shortly thereafter.
Maryville builder Jeff Smith is acting as construction manager for the complex, which is going up on three acres of land donated by Maryville East Side Development near the newly constructed intersection of Che and East Second streets.
The greenhouse operation adjoins a new retail district sprouting up just northwest of the junction of East First Street and the Highway 71 bypass.
Pierson estimated the cost of phase-one construction at about $650,000, money that Lettuce Dream has spent more than three years raising through private donations, trust and foundation gifts, the sale of Neighborhood Assistance Program tax credits through the Missouri Department of Economic Development, and a Rural Business Development grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In addition to the donated land, Lettuce Dream has received significant in-kind support from local businesses and individuals. Brock Pfost of White Cloud Engineering, for example, is donating installation of water and sewer connections along with associated infrastructure.
The three structures will have concrete pad foundations, and the operations building is to be constructed using pre-fabricated, interlocking poly-acrylic beams filled with insulating foam and concrete. Both greenhouses will consist of a framework covered with translucent acrylic panels containing air cavities for improved insulation.
Pierson said each greenhouse will contain two suspended natural gas heaters that, in the winter, will ensure a minimum growing temperature of 45 degrees.
Lettuce, which thrives in cool weather, will be grown year-round using a no-soil technology known as hydroponics, in which plants are cultivated in nutrient-enriched water instead of tilled earth.
The idea is to sell the produce to area markets, restaurants, and food-service operations in order to cover operating expenses and pay administrative staff.
Lettuce Dream President Diane Francis has compared the initiative to a trade school or college for the developmentally disabled and other handicapped persons, who she said have few educational alternatives following high school.
Though phase one is under way, Pierson said the organization’s fundraising efforts will continue full force in order to prepare for phase two, a plan for two additional greenhouses to be constructed in two or three years.
“A lot of people think, ‘They’ve got the money and they’re done,’” he said. “But we’re not done. This is just the first phase.
Ultimately the organization hopes to build as many as 16 greenhouses at its current location in addition to an office building and a warehouse.
Lettuce Dream was organized using a business model established by Wendie Blanchard, founder of Arthur & Friends, a New Jersey-based non-profit with a greenhouse operation serving wholesale and retail markets across greater New York City.
Blanchard’s organization, which has provided training materials and coaching to similar organizations in various parts of the country, was hired by Lettuce Dream in 2013 under an agreement specifying that it would act as a consultant to the local group over a five-year period.
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