Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Leslie Bridgers firstname.lastname@example.org
WINDHAM — Standing next to a wooden stake in this rocky soil, John der Kinderen describes his vision for Sebago Farms.
John der Kinderen
Boston lettuce grows on floating raft technology in China in a facility similar to the one that John der Kinderen of Arundel hopes to build at Sebago Farms in Windham.
One of three huge hydroponic greenhouses would stretch 2,000 feet from this spot -- a distance longer than two Eiffel Towers laid end to end. There are plans for fish ponds and unique renewable energy elements that will make it extremely efficient.
By 2013, Sebago Farms should be selling hydroponic vegetables and coldwater fish throughout the Northeast.
"Many things are still up in the air," he said last week about the details of the project. Still, he was certain about one thing: "It will happen. There's no question about that."
Der Kinderen hopes to start construction this spring, begin operations by the end of the year, and have it completely up and running in 2013.
The business, which would employ 170 people, would be Windham's biggest taxpayer and one of the largest developments in the state.
"I can't think of anything else that even comes close, in terms of the sheer physical size or in terms of the financial investment," said Town Manager Tony Plante.
Behind the project is an international technology company called BioSynEnergy, which is working to build several similar facilities throughout the country.
Richard Newbold, the managing principal of BioSyn, said the company isn't ready to talk publicly about the Windham project yet.
"For us, it's a little premature," he said Thursday.
Although the people behind the project have only recently started the process of seeking local and state permits, Sebago Farms is on the fast track for approval and construction, which der Kinderen hopes will start this spring, with production beginning by the end of the year.
Der Kinderen, a retired high school science teacher who lives in Arundel, connected with BioSyn when he was researching ways to make more money off the wood chips that came out of a harvest of his woodlot about three years ago.
The more he talked to the company, the more he learned about its methods of integrating different types of technology, including its concept for ultra-efficient greenhouses that would use renewable energy to grow produce and raise fish in any climate year-round.
The model for the project appealed to der Kinderen's interests, as an avid organic farmer and a former science teacher and technology director at Cheverus High School in Portland.
"I asked if they would do a project in Maine," he said.
For the past year and a half, der Kinderen has been studying the feasibility of the business and scoping out potential sites for the greenhouses. He incorporated WNWN, LLC last fall for the purpose of building the facility -- and possibly others.
After looking at about a dozen locations, he and BioSyn settled on the 72-acre site in the Windham business park, where there's access to natural gas and a major roadway.
That's when WNWN started seeking investors, whom der Kinderen declined to name, though he said they include people from Maine and some "have done these types of projects before."
One of them is R.J. Grondin & Sons, which owns the proposed site of the project and is close to finalizing the sale of the land to WNWN.
"It's new technology that I think is intriguing," said Ken Grondin, president of the construction company, of his interest in the project.
Grondin said he also knew that BioSyn was more likely to follow through with the project if local investors were on board.
"It's something I wanted to see happen in Windham," he said.
State officials have also been working to make sure the project is built in Maine by guiding der Kinderen through the permitting process with the departments of transportation and environmental protection, among others.
"We are very committed to job creation. That's a critical piece of this," said Deb Neuman, deputy commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.
It also offers a chance for Maine to be at the forefront of a new use of technology.
While there's nothing ground-breaking about hydroponic vegetables or indoor aquaculture, der Kinderen said, this would be the first facility in the United States to have both at one location.
One benefit is that parts of the fish that are normally discarded can be processed in a bioreactor to make high-quality fertilizer for the vegetables, der Kinderen said.
That's just a piece of the high-tech, renewable energy system on which the facility would operate.
The use of "ultimate efficiency" natural gas engines that would keep power costs down is an important part of making the project viable, der Kinderen said. Another is the demand for natural products that come from nearby.
"Throughout the region, there's a tremendous demand for more locally produced foods," said Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
Although hydroponic foods are not considered organic, Libby said, he believes "the notion is a good one, of growing more food in the region year-round."
Der Kinderen, who would be a part owner of Sebago Farms, said he wouldn't have a hand in the management of the business. Once he gets the facility up and running, he plans to replicate the model in other parts of the state. He said he's already started looking for sites in central Maine.
But for now, it's about getting through the regulatory process for the Windham project as quickly as possible. Although the work has gone smoothly so far, as a longtime member of the Arundel Planning Board, der Kinderen knows there may be snags along the way.
He said there's one other BioSyn project -- in Livingston, Tenn. -- that's at about the same place in the process as Sebago Farms.
Aside from starting to see the investment in the project pay off, that's a major motivating factor for der Kinderen.
"I want Maine to be No. 1," he said.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:
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