Tavern goes hydroponic for greens, herbs

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s Two Brothers Tavern offers a cure for the winter blues just inside its entrance: Leafy green shoots sprout from a six-foot-tall column, and the soothing sound of running water fills the space between the front door and the restaurant’s dining room and bar.
The miniature oasis of lush green looks like it might be more at home in a science fiction movie than in the entrance to a popular Main Street restaurant, but the hydroponic growing unit at Two Brothers offers a new method of providing produce at any time of year — no matter what Mother Nature might be doing.
And it catches people’s attention. 
“It’s a real conversation starter,” said Holmes Jacobs, a Two Brothers’ co-owner.
The hydroponic system is a project of Jeff Jones, a managing partner with Vermont Hydroponic’s CustomGro division. The company is based in Florence and seeks to help restaurants, retailers and schools grow their own produce on-site. With such systems, even surfaces like walls or unoccupied storage containers can become space for growing produce.
The technique was first developed in Latham, N.Y., at a Market Bistro, a store affiliated with Price Chopper, which succeeded in growing 18 cherry tomato plants, Jones explained. He is also working with the Long Trail Brewery in Bridgewater Corners to grow its own brewing hops on-site, but the prototype inside Two Brothers is the first working system of its kind in a Vermont restaurant.
“The coolest part is to be able to tell our customers even in the dead of February that their produce was grown locally,” said Jacobs.
While conventional agriculture demands sufficient nutrients in correct proportions, plants grown without soil — a technique called hydroponics — have different requirements. Nutrient-enriched water is pumped up the central tower of the column in the Two Brothers entryway and then it cascades down over the roots of plants inserted into 28 “grow pods” that include porous, nutrient-rich volcanic rock.
The system is relatively low-maintenance. At night, four florescent lights switch on, bathing the leaves in light needed for photosynthesis. The level of acidity in the nutrient solution must be tested just once a week. Jones can monitor its health through a video camera discreetly installed in a case opposite the unit. So far, he says he has been satisfied with the results.
“We figured if we could grow there, then we could grow anywhere,” he said. “The concept has been proven, and this unit is performing as planned.”
The hydroponic plants grow quickly. Within seven days, the tower yields useable shoots, and an initial sprout can be fully-grown in as little as 21 days.
As the effects of global climate change become increasingly visible and oil and water supplies decline, Jones says the need to pursue local alternatives is increasing in order to control costs, maintain supply and protect the environment.
“Most of the salad greens used in restaurants come from California and areas like the Salinas Valley,” he said. “These delicate greens travel great distances. Looking down the road, we’re also seeing oil and water as a scarcity.” 
With the help of the hydroponic unit, this restaurant grows a mix of mesclun greens, basil, bitters and rosemary. The greens and herbs grown there are used in salads and garnishes in the kitchen and behind the bar. The hydroponic greens are able to provide a portion of the produce needed by the restaurant’s busy kitchen.
“In terms of lettuce or something we use in a larger volume, it’s only (a) partial” solution, said Two Brothers chef Shane Lawton. “But you can fill a tower with any fresh herbs and do really well. We can meet that demand.”
Faraway events like frosts in Chile or blights in California can affect the price for produce that a restaurant in Middlebury pays. Growing even a small portion of the produce that would otherwise be shipped across the country or even longer distances can save money.
“Each lettuce seedling costs seven cents,” chef Lawton said. “And they turn out as many heads as you can trim.”
After testing the unit in the Two Brothers Tavern, Jones said he plans to approach larger food distributors this year with proposals to adopt similar units.
After their experience with the one unit, restaurant co-owner Jacobs said he is considering installing a second unit, possibly in the dining area. On New Year’s Eve, greens from the unit were used in a salad special with arugula and oranges. Two Brothers kitchen staff plan more salads for the future as they test more varieties to see which are most practical.
“They all germinate and come to fruition, it’s just that some take longer than others,” Jacobs said. “But so far we haven’t found anything that can’t grow.”

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