Lettuce, Tomatoes, Jobs: Berlin OKs High-Tech Greenhouses

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Berlin Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme listens to an explanation of the project. A photograph of one of the proposed greenhouses was on the back of the diagram of the site plan being discussed. Photo by Chris Jensen

By Chris Jensen

BERLIN — Two high-tech commercial greenhouses expected to produce 15 million heads of lettuce and eight million pounds of tomatoes a year were approved unanimously Tuesday night by the Berlin Planning Board.

The Berlin Planning Board unanimously approved the site plan for greenhouses. Photo by Chris Jensen

It’s hoped that construction will begin this spring and that the greenhouses will be operating early next year, said Marguerite A. Piret, the chief financial officer of American Ag Energy.

American Ag Energy is the parent company of North Country Growers LLC, which will be operating the facilities.

Piret said about 80 fulltime workers will be needed and they’ll be employed year around. She said final decisions haven’t been made on wages, but estimated they would start around $30,000 a year with benefits for those who would be picking the crop.

Piret said the produce, to be sold throughout New England, will be picked when ripe and will be on a store’s shelves the next day.

The hydroponic greenhouses are modeled after those used extensively in Europe, Piret said. “None of this is new technology,” she said. “All of this has been used and worked for 15 to 20 years. It is proven.”

Instead of soil, they will use water blended with nutrients. Pesticides will not be used. Water will be collected from the roofs and power for lighting and heating will come from GE Jenbacher engines powered by natural gas.

The greenhouses will be located on East Milan Road. But the company doesn’t yet own the land, which belongs to the city. Instead, it has put down $20,000 which gives it until April 29 to buy the 173 acres for $680,000. It is part of 215 acres that the city bought in 2015 for $90,000.

Engineer Jay Poulin explained some of the plans to members of the audience. Photo by Chris Jensen

About 40 acres of the parcel will be used with the lettuce and tomato greenhouses, each taking up almost 10 acres, said Jay Poulin, the engineer for the project.

“Essentially it is a metal building with a glass skin,” Poulin said. “The walls and roof are glass.” The buildings are one story and about 19-feet tall.

Another commercial greenhouse project in Loudon has upset many neighbors because of the lights are so bright at night, according to New Hampshire Public Radio.

But these greenhouses will have blackout screens, said Samuel Gaeth, the company’s manager of environment and safety.

“They are actually designed to keep the sun out. An issue is you can have overheating of greenhouses,” he said. He said they are “99 percent effective” at blocking the sun and also block the light at night.

Community development director Pamela Laflamme said she was assured the shades would be “high quality and non-porous” and that gave her a “level of comfort” compared to Loudon project.

Piret said some light will escape at night, but she couldn’t immediately provide any kind of rating.

Two neighbors raised concerns about the impact of the project, but neither mentioned a concern about light pollution.

“You are no longer living in a rural setting. You are basically living in an industrial park,” said Peter Nolet.

Gary Ferron said he was primarily concerned about a reduction in property value and the noise from construction.

This is the fifth time Rosen has tried to establish high-tech greenhouses in the last six years. Four other efforts, two in Massachusetts and two in New Hampshire, did not go past the planning stage.

Piret said the company “has financing proposed to us. All of the details are not yet finalized. But we have commitments for the capital.”