Support for hydroponic greenhouse grows

A red bell pepper at Chester's Thriftway.

The city of John Day could be getting a hydroponic greenhouse as early as August of 2018.

The facility, capable of yielding as much as 1,200 pounds of produce weekly and 31 tons annually, is proposed to be built at the Innovation Gateway site on the west side of town.

The John Day City Council Aug. 1 approved a budget adjustment and authorized the expenditure of roughly $105,000 from the city’s sewer fund. The money, roughly 14 percent of the city’s net working capital in the sewer fund, will pay for a full-time employee to run the greenhouse and materials and services, according to John Day City Manager Nick Green.

“You’ve got to throw your toes in the water to see if it will work,” Councilman Steve Schuette said.

Hydroponic greenhouses grow crops without soil, instead using water to deliver nutrients to plants. The project will take advantage of two resources plentiful to the city: water and sunlight.

The city’s current plan involves an eight-month planning window followed by a four-month greenhouse construction phase. This means the first crop could be planted as early as August of 2018.

The total cost of the project is between $300,000 and $400,000. This price range is because the city is still in the research phase of the project and is considering a number of manufacturers, including Rough Brothers Inc., Cropking and Bright Agrotech, according to senior project manager Aaron Lieuallen.

In controlled greenhouses, crops can mature up to 25 percent faster and yield up to 30 percent more produce, according to Lieuallen, who cited the ability to control the growing climate and pests, such as earwigs.

The city is working with local grocers to determine what produce will sell best in local markets before deciding on a manufacturer, Lieuallen said.

Chester’s Thriftway manager Bill Wyllie said he had discussed selling local produce with the city. Wyllie said the store went through large quantities of vegetables, such as lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers and recommended the city consider cultivating them.

He said eliminating the need to transport produce would give customers a fresher product with a longer shelf life and reduce the amount of food waste.

“The customers could win because they could potentially get the product cheaper, we win because we put more of our dollars right back into the community, the city wins — just everyone wins,” Wyllie said.

Local markets, restaurants, schools and the hospital are all potential customers, Lieuallen said. He speculated the greenhouse could yield more produce than could be consumed locally.

Produce grown locally could have a longer shelf life and potentially reduced cost, encouraging residents to eat healthier, Green said.

Two to three jobs could be created by the facility, and volunteer labor could be compensated with produce.

The facility would initially use fresh water, but could be switched to using reclaimed water from a possible wastewater treatment plant proposed for the Innovation Gateway.

Potential partners for the venture include Oregon Regional Solutions, the county and academic institutions.

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