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From Israel with Love – High-tech hydroponics makes its U.S. debut by way of Guilford, Connecticut

By Cindy Mindell

GUILFORD – Israeli technology has been hailed not only for its innovation but for its focus on solving the world’s most taxing challenges, from breakthroughs in cancer research to water desalination. On the front lines of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israel is this counter-message: a boycott of Israel means giving up everything from cellphones and computer operating systems, to cherry tomatoes and honey, to generic prescription drugs and surgical lasers – products and procedures on a long list of life-enhancing products and inventions created or improved in Israel.

By necessity, Israelis have developed some of the most advanced agricultural methods in the world, which have been exported to help hostile growing environments in Africa and the Middle East. Now, with water becoming a scarcer resource in more places around the world, Israel is again on the cutting edge of the farming industry. The newest hydroponic technology has just arrived in the U.S., and Connecticut has been selected as the center of operations.

lettuce with root

Dirt free: The root ball sits in a water-based nutrient solution rather than in soil.

Meet Growponics, an Israeli company specializing in automated factory greenhouses. The growing facilities use modern agronomics and technology to maximize plant production and profitability on crop yields grown 365 days a year. The greenhouses use a unique, shallow-bed, rotating system and hydroponic growing methods, resulting in significantly greater yields and lower costs than farming arable land. Because the Growponics greenhouses can be installed in any climate, high-quality local produce can be grown anywhere in the world.

The system cares for plants throughout the growth cycle. Automatically seeded, plants sprout in a self-contained environment, where light, heat, and air are all computer-controlled for optimum conditions. The roots are loaded onto special trays, where they take macro- and micro-nutrients directly from the water, precisely as needed. The plants are fully protected, reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides.

THE CONNECTICUT CONNECTION

Growponics already has set up several facilities throughout the world. This month, the company launches its first U.S. production center, based in Guilford. The “shadchan” — matchmaker — in this new partnership is Stephen Weinstein, owner of Connecticut Hydroponic Farm in East Hartford.

Weinstein first became interested in soilless agriculture in 2009, when he purchased a five-acre garden center containing four large greenhouses. He first grew flowers and then decided to switch to edible produce, using several grants and investments to develop a hydroponic growing system. In 2012, Connecticut Hydroponic Farm was launched, providing the East Coast wholesale market with Bibb lettuce, Padron peppers from Galicia, Spain, and Fresno peppers from southern California.

“Hydroponic growing has been around for a long time but has taken a second position to field-growing produce,” he says. “With the advent of land being used for other reasons, lack of water, and diseases that affect plants, growing produce in a controlled environment such as a greenhouse is a much safer and more productive way to grow.”

Connecticut Hydroponic Farm is sizable but not large enough to supply all of New England, says Weinstein, who set out to find a way to expand production capacity in the state. He researched large scale hydroponic growers around the world and discovered that some of the best known ones hail from the Netherlands and Israel.

stages of growth

Stages of Growth.

“The technology that comes out of Israel for greenhouse growing is world-renowned,” he says. “A drip irrigation system developed in Israel by Netafim is used now in most indoor greenhouses throughout the world. A lot of the plastic that’s used in greenhouses came out of the development of greenhouses in the Negev and other areas that allowed Israel to develop advanced growing that many of the surrounding countries have been very slow to adapt and develop. Israel’s reputation for hydroponics technology is as strong as the Netherlands and Japan and other countries, and a lot of that technology will be a great help in boosting the growing capability in the hydroponic world.

“Israel has done very well because its climate does not lend itself to traditional farming, so it has created the environment to develop hydroponic growing. Whereas field-growing is not controlled, hydroponic growing is more like factory growing, where everything is controlled,” he adds.

Weinstein was especially impressed by the technology that Growponics had to offer.

“It is stronger than a lot of the technology in use throughout the world, but it is not part of many of the other hydroponic systems currently in use,” he says. “It offers faster production, quicker harvesting, and in many cases, better produce, that will make it more marketable.”

In mid-2013, Weinstein contacted Lior Hessel, managing partner and ag-tech owner of Growponics in Israel, and the two spent the next year-and-a-half scouting locations in the state.

Growponics began to take shape in 1999 at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, where Hessel had earned a BS in mechanical engineering. While employed in silicon equipment manufacturing and working on a master’s degree in management at Technion, Hessel got the idea to apply high tech to greenhouse production, and brought his proposal to the Technion Entrepreneurial Incubator Company (TEIC).

“I said I anticipated that in 10 or 15 years, there would be problems with water quality and quantity, problems with energy, and problems with transport of fruits and vegetables, especially of leafy vegetables,” he recalls.

TEIC is backed by the Office of the Chief Scientist Incubator Program, which is part of the Ministry of Industry and Trade. Hessel’s proposal was accepted and provided with funding by the Office of the Chief Scientist, supplemented by several private investors. Hessel and his team developed technology and built a prototype, filed patents, and demonstrated a proof of concept. Over the next four years, the fledgling company OrganiTech raised $8 million and developed what may be the most advanced growing system in the world, setting up greenhouses throughout Israel and making its first European inroads in Ireland.

From there, Hessel’s team worked with English entrepreneurs to establish Growponics Ltd. in 2010, registered in the UK, expanding the company’s presence throughout the world.

“In Israel, we have a huge amount of knowledge in agricultural engineering and a very limited market, so we can’t export a lot of fruits and vegetables,” Hessel explains. “Instead, we export greenhouse factories that produce the fruits and vegetables.”

Growponics is now active throughout Europe (including Turkey), in China, and even some unexpected places for Israelis to work in, like Dubai and other Middle Eastern countries.

The North American market has been more difficult to penetrate, mostly due to relatively inexpensive shipping costs from the produce-growing states of Arizona and California to the rest of the country. But according to Hessel, the U.S. has become a market that is uniquely ripe for greenhouse technology. A head of lettuce may cost 20 or 30 cents to produce, but one dollar to transport to the East Coast. Over the past five years, shipping costs have grown five-fold, making fresh produce unaffordable for some 20 percent of the American population.

Whereas Europe has developed a robust greenhouse industry for vegetables, similar produce-growing technology is virtually non-existent in the U.S., due to lack of demand. But the scenario has changed over the last several years: drought plagues lettuce-growing California, and produce-borne E. coli kills some 20 Americans every year. The U.S. may finally be ready for greenhouse agriculture, also known as “protected crops.”

“We’re in something of a vacuum,” says Hessel. “There is a huge need for quality vegetables, especially on the East Coast, where you won’t find any professional greenhouse factories for production of vegetables for the fresh market — that’s going to change with us or without us. We have the best technology in the world and we have almost no competition: nobody has the levels of automation and field rotation and conveyor technology that we have to make the production as efficient as ours. Nobody’s invested anything near the amount of money that we’ve invested to develop a hydroponic growing system. So we can grow a head of lettuce of the highest quality for probably the lowest cost of production. Therefore, we believe we can become an important player in this new industry.”

FINDING A HOME

steve weinstein

“With the advent of land being used for other reasons, lack of water, and diseases that affect plants, growing produce in a controlled environment such as a greenhouse is a much safer and more productive way to grow.” – Stephen Weinstein

Weinstein identified several potential sites around the state and toured them with Hessel. The two eventually settled on Pinchbeck Rose Farm in Guilford, now owned by fourth-generation family farmer Tom Pinchbeck, which offered available greenhouse space that could be modified to accommodate Growponics’s specialized equipment.

Founded in 1929, the farm is home to a three-acre greenhouse built to supply the wholesale rose market. The greenhouse has been leased since 2008 by Roses for Autism, a partnership between Pinchbeck Farms and Ability Beyond Disability in Bethel; but the non-profit organization has only been using half the space and agreed to relinquish the unused area to Growponics.

Hessel had explored several potential sites around the country and set up a small pilot project in the Midwest before settling on Connecticut, a state refreshingly open to what Growponics had to offer. In most of the U.S., the zoning and permitting process proves a major stumbling block to greenhouse construction in particular.

“When somebody wants to build a one-acre greenhouse, as far as the authorities are concerned, they’re building a 43,000-square-foot building,” Hessel says. “They expect you to do the whole zoning, planning, and registration process, and the project becomes almost impossible to finance. Government authorities can be very uncooperative, and not intentionally: it’s because they don’t understand what building a greenhouse is.”

Growponics encountered the opposite attitude in Connecticut, where Weinstein set up meetings with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Economic and Community Development. “Those commissioners should get the credit because they convinced us that Connecticut is where we should start and where we should make our U.S. base,” Hessel says.

With its reliance on water as a growing compound, hydroponic agriculture may seem like an inefficient way to produce fresh foods, especially as water becomes scarcer around the world. But the opposite is true, Hessel explains, and there are additional benefits to this kind of production.

“Hydroponics saves up to 80 percent of water: the water is all recirculated and there is no spillage or outlet of water; therefore, there’s no waste of water,” he says. “The fact that all the water is recirculated also means that there is no negative effect on the environment. With most crops that are grown, a lot of the fertilizers end up in your well or river and in your drinking water. In our case, that doesn’t happen. In some places in Europe, you’re not allowed to grow without hydroponics, just for this reason, so that you don’t contaminate the groundwater.”

At the new Guilford site, Growponics will operate as H2O Farm through its American subsidiary, Growponics USA Inc. The company is now in the process of modifying the greenhouse area to accommodate specialized automated equipment manufactured in Israel. The first shipments of lettuce to the East Coast wholesale market are expected by the end of the year. Hessel hopes to eventually expand the crops to include other leafy greens and herbs, which are successfully cultivated at other Growponics locations.

The new U.S. facility is a joint venture between Growponics and its financial backer, CTS Group, one of the most prominent companies in Israel engaged in the healthcare, agricultural, and veterinary sectors. Agrica, CTS’s agricultural division, is involved in the import, registration, marketing, and distribution of plant-protection agents, seeds, and fertilizers. CTS has served as the local representative for agricultural multinationals such as Syngenta, BASF, Valent (Sumitomo) and Nufarm. The Agrica division also operates the Dr. Meron manufacturing plant in Haifa, which is involved in the formulation and manufacturing of pest-control products and other preparations for plant protection in Israel. CTS is led by CFO Ido Helft.

“When I told CTS about the opportunity in America, they immediately said, ‘That’s where we need to go,’” Hessel says.

Weinstein will continue in a consulting capacity as he works to help the company integrate into the agricultural and business communities of Connecticut.

“Growponics really is a stand-alone Israeli company bringing its technology to the United States,” he says. “We will be looking to possibly expand as its success proves out.”

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