Old school apples to high tech lettuce

Maple Lane Farms owner Allyn Brown III works with electrician Steve Konow on the electrical systems that will be used in the farm's new hydroponic lettuce greenhouse.

Preston - At Maple Lane Farms, Ginger Gold, Suncrisp and Cortland apples are hanging from their stems, waiting to be picked.

Apple-picking season begins Aug. 25, the second series of pick-your-own fruit the farm offers. The pick-your-own blueberry and raspberry season ended the first week of August, said owner Allyn Brown III.

In between each pick-your-own season, Brown maintains the more than 100-acre farm and works on new endeavors, like his year-round, no-soil hydroponic lettuce crop.

"Because the lettuce is a colder weather crop, there's little heating necessary and it can grow all year long, unlike tomatoes, which you have to empty the greenhouse for," Brown said.

The lettuce is placed into small holes on hydroponic float systems, which resemble Styrofoam slates. The slates float on a long pool of water, about a foot deep, until the lettuce grows to maturity.

In about two months, when the operation is in full swing, Brown said his four separate pods of water will produce 2,800 heads of organic lettuce a week.

Through the state's Department of Agriculture, Brown was awarded a Farm Transition Grant to help offset the cost of the hydroponic lettuce setup, which is taking over the farm's oyster mushroom operation, which ceased in 2005.

"It will help with our year-round cash flow. We just planted the seeds," he said.

One of the farm's biggest revenue producers is its black currant juice operation.

Maple Lane Farms is the largest grower of black currants in North America and the only farm in the country that produces a fresh currant juice, Brown said. He harvests more than 30 acres of currants using a $125,000 harvester he had shipped from Finland.

Black currants contain higher concentrations of Vitamin C, potassium and iron than most other fruits.

"We're in every major grocery store in New England, and in stores from New York all the way to Florida," Brown said.

The pasteurized juice is bottled three times a week in the farm's own bottling plant, across the street from the 160-acre farm.

The juice comes in several varieties, including black currant, black currant cranberry, and black currant apple cider. The black currant juice and currant juice blends are sold in some chain grocery stores like Big Y, Shop Rite, and Shaw's.

"The movement to buy closer to home is beginning. People like to know where their produce is coming from," Brown said.

"We're really a diversified operation," he said. "It's hard to survive as a pick-your-own farm."


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