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Groton - An entrepreneur whose start-up business is part of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point's Technology Incubation Program plans to take the "buy local" concept a step further this winter by leasing 2,000 square feet in southeastern Connecticut for an indoor hydroponic vegetable operation.
Richard Fu, chief executive of Agrivolution LLC, said this week that he is looking to set up a demonstration facility locally - possibly in Groton or New London - where his company will begin growing a crop known as the ice plant, or glacial lettuce. The first harvest, he said, would be in mid-February, and he subsequently plans to open other growing facilities in Connecticut, including Bridgeport and New Haven.
"The whole concept is to grow local, buy local," Fu said in an interview on the Avery Point campus. "The idea is to minimize transportation costs." He hopes that one day, his operation could mean dozens of jobs for the region.
Hydroponic operations essentially are indoor farms that grow plants with mineral nutrients rather than soil. Fu's facility does not need windows, since he plans to use hybrid electro-fluorescent lights to encourage growth. The indoor operation will not need pesticides, since it is a controlled environment.
Plants are grown using a six-shelf system that maximizes the use of space, increasing efficiency, Fu said.
Fu, who won a business plan contest at UConn's Storrs campus last year and defended his doctoral dissertation last month, won a year's free space at Avery Point to help get his hydroponic operation off the ground. He received a boost when a Japanese company agreed to provide him, at no cost for the first year, the technology he needed to set up his first facility.
"He's fulfilling a need that's unmet," said Mary Anne Rooke, director of the Avery Point incubator. "There's such a need right now to buy local."
"It's an investment that will benefit Connecticut in the long term," Fu said.
"I think it's got legs," said Deborah Donovan, economic development director at the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region. "It seems so simple, you wonder why nobody thought about it before."
Fu is looking to relocate from Storrs to southeastern Connecticut. His first crop, the ice plant, is a crunchy vegetable well-loved in Japanese cooking but not well-known in the United States.
"He's introducing a new, vitamin-rich food to American palates," Donovan said.
Fu said he already has spoken to several restaurateurs and whole-foods stores interested in buying his products. Ice plants, he said, are generally mixed in with salads or used as a garnish, and he plans to work with local chefs to create recipes incorporating the vegetable.
Other vegetables Fu envisions growing hydroponically include arugula, cilantro, watercress, various herbs and a variety of leafy greens. Other parts of the country, particularly Chicago, have developed similar high-efficiency hydroponic setups, but Connecticut so far has few, Fu said.
"We have all the technology we need already to make this happen," Fu said. "It's just a matter of putting all these technologies together."
Connecticut now buys about 90 percent of its vegetables from out of state, he said. Fu estimated that for lettuce alone, this means the state spends $40 million to $50 million annually on harvests from California, Arizona, Mexico and Canada.
"We can change that," he said. "We can make sure that $50 million stays in Connecticut."