SOUTH PORTLAND – With the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Grow-Tech in South Portland has created an innovative new product designed to assist in the growth of hydroponic crops.

The new growing medium, called BioStrate Felt, is a bio-based textile specifically engineered for hydroponic micro-greens and baby salad greens, according to a company press release.

Hydroponics is most simply defined as the production of crops without the use of soil. In many parts of the world, hydroponics is seen as the answer to concerns about the future of food production, which is being threatened by diminishing soil quality, water scarcity and urban development.

According to Tracy Weber, who works in product development at Grow-Tech, the process of developing the BioStrate technology began five years ago with a small business innovation research grant.

“One of the primary benefits of growing plants hydroponically is the reduction in water usage,” she said. “For growers in climates where water is not plentiful, this is particularly appealing. Also, while start-up costs for commercial hydroponic systems can be prohibitive, production time is less in hydroponic growing than in traditional field agriculture so more produce can be grown in less space in less time.”

Weber said Grow-Tech was founded in the 1980s when Dole Foods was looking for a way to optimize its lettuce seedling production in California. Dole’s search for a stable, large-scale automated hydroponic growing platform resulted in a partnership with a company founded by Scott Kennedy of Boothbay.

That partnership eventually evolved into Grow-Tech, which is now owned by the Anania & Associates Investment Co. based in Windham.

In addition to Grow-Tech, Anania & Associates also owns Lighthouse Imaging, a Windham company that provides optical engineering and design services for the medical device industry.

Almost five years ago, Anania & Associates also acquired Biovation II in Boothbay, a research and development firm that is on the cutting edge of the infection control industry.

Weber said Grow-Tech employs 30 people at its South Portland facility and the company sells its products to commercial growers from Great Britain to the Netherlands, from Israel to Tahiti and from Canada to Japan.

The new BioStrate Felt product is “a lightweight, bio-based textile that wicks and retains water while providing an inert environment for dense healthy root development,” Weber said. “It is an alternative to (other) growing media, such as potting soil and burlap.”

She said that hydroponic and aquaponic growers of salad greens and micro-greens would be the most likely users of the BioStrate Felt.

“Micro-greens are young, tender greens that are used to enhance the color, texture or flavor of salads, or to garnish a wide variety of main dishes,” according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida.

The institute further identifies micro-greens as plants that “germinate easily and grow quickly,” including cabbage, beet, kale, kohlrabi, mizuna, mustard, radish, Swiss chard and amaranth.

In all, the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences reports that as many as 80 to 100 crop varieties can be used as micro-greens, including carrots, watercress, arugula, basil, onion, chive, broccoli, fennel, lemongrass, popcorn, buckwheat, spinach, sweet pea and celery.

The market price for micro-greens ranges from $20 to $50 a pound, so the profit margin for these products can be quite high since even a small, home-based operation can grow a crop in 10 to 20 days, according to the Profitable Plants Digest.

And, the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky said the market for micro-greens is only expected to grow, as more and more people jump on this latest culinary trend.

The agriculture college said micro-greens were first introduced into “high-end culinary establishments” in the late 1990s and since 2006 they’ve become more popular with “health-conscious consumers.”

At Grow-Tech, the BioStrate Felt is the first in a range of products in development that are being designed specifically for the hydroponics market, according to a company press release.

“We have been fortunate to be able to utilize our experience in the horticulture sector combined with a close collaboration with innovators in the hydroponics sectors to develop a new (product) that meets the needs of this fast growing market,” said Edwin Dijkshoorn, the chief executive officer at Grow-Tech.

With its BioStrate Felt product, Dijkshoorn said his company was able to meet the demands of commercial hydroponic growers who were looking for a high performance medium that promotes dense healthy roots and shoots and that is easy to use. BioStrate Felt is also easily compostable.

Overall, Dijkshoorn said, “Grow-Tech strives to be a leading supplier of innovative growing media for the greenhouse industry and modern food propagation systems.”

Its other products include a line of peat-based products, which help to provide a stable growing platform. Weber said that in place of field soil, hydroponic growers use a variety of materials including peat moss, coco fiber, perlite – a type of volcanic glass – burlap and composted bark.

Grow-Tech, a South Portland company, has just developed a new bio-based textile, called BioStrate Felt, which is used in growing hydroponic crops. 

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