The owner of Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook wants to develop a 20-acre greenhouse and grow millions of pounds of hydroponic tomatoes.

Warren Knight and his partner, a produce distributor in Connecticut, are proposing to use waste heat from the nearby Calpine power plant to maintain growing temperatures in the greenhouse.

Knight, who has yet to apply for permits for the $25 million project, is investigating the feasibility of building the greenhouse on a wooded lot on his County Road farm, next to Calpine’s plant.

Bill Ferguson, regional vice president for Calpine, said the plant’s managers have met with Knight to discuss his proposal.

“If it were to work economically, it would have to make sense for both companies,” Ferguson said. “If (Knight) was willing to buy hot water from us to heat his greenhouse that is another source of revenue for us. We would be interested.”

Knight, whose farm now produces a variety of dairy products, said the greenhouse could create about 100 jobs. It’s also projected to yield 12 million to 14 million pounds of tomatoes each year, said Larry Gianatti Sr., president of Quality Sales Inc., a produce distributor in Hartford, Conn.

Gianatti said he has been in the produce business for nearly 50 years, importing tomatoes from around the world and distributing them to chain supermarkets and major wholesalers. He said Smiling Hill Farm’s proximity to Boston and New York would give the business a major advantage.

“The United States consumer is looking for safe produce grown in the U.S., and is especially interested in locally grown,” Gianatti said. “The demand for the vine-cluster tomatoes is unlimited.”

Hydroponic tomatoes are grown in nutrient-rich solutions rather than soil.

Knight said the greenhouse would be similar to one developed by Backyard Farms in Madison. That company opened a 24-acre, year-round tomato growing operation in 2007, and added 18 acres of greenhouse capacity in 2009.

Keith Luke, Westbrook’s director of economic and community development, said the greenhouse plan presents an exciting opportunity.

“The success of Backyard Farms is clearly indicative of additional opportunity in that industry,” he said. “I think it’s the future of agriculture, particularly in suburban areas.”

 

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: mcreamer@pressherald.com