SHARON, Pa. – Like lettuce that’s grown close to home?
How about lettuce grown inside an industrial building where torpedoes and transformers were once manufactured?
Area consumers will be able to purchase lettuce grown within The Landing, the section of the former Westinghouse complex on Sharpsville Avenue in Sharon, Pa., leased by Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp.
The aquaponics operation is being run by WestWinn Urban Ag., a subsidiary of the Winner Companies, which bought the property in the 1990s. It employs the agricultural science of aquaponics to produce lettuce and herbs, as well as fish.
Aquaponics is a method of producing food that combines raising sea animals such as fish or prawns in tanks with hydroponics, or growing plants in water instead of soil. Before harvesting the fish,
the nutrients they produce in the tanks are introduced into the hydroponic bays where the plants are grown.
The operation is led by Rob Studor, director of aquaponics for WestWinn Urban Ag. Studor, a self-described “entrepreneurial hobbyist,” has been involved with hydroponics and alternative gardening for 17 years, most recently teaching business entrepreneurship and culinary horticulture at Laurel Technical Institute in Sharon.
“Kids get a kick out of when I say I didn’t know I liked science until I was 46,” Studor says.
The initiative follows years of development. Six years ago, a group that included Karen Winner Sed, CEO of Winner Companies, CFO Charles Miller and Jack Campbell, vice president, visited an aquaponics facility in Wisconsin and took a three-day class.
“People flock from all around the world to visit this Wisconsin facility. Their facilities were well established, and the produce was beautiful,” Winner Sed says. “I never saw kale look like that and never tasted greens that were so crisp, fresh and frankly, delicious. It was something I’d never seen before and wanted to replicate.”
The sentiment among the group that visited Wisconsin was such a facility in Sharon could be “such a big deal” in terms of addressing food supply, water consumption and conservation, says Miller, who also is an officer in the Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp.
“Urbanwise, it could make such a difference,” he says. “My other thought was we have a brownfield site and maybe this could fit into brownfield site reuse.”
Upon their return, the group suggested an aquaponics startup to the Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp. as a good use for The Landing. “It was something they thought would be a good way to spearhead redevelopment of this empty building,” Campbell says.
“The Landing speaks to transformation. The building had to reinvent itself for different uses as we’re not building transformers or torpedoes anymore. The square footage alone allowed for just about any project we wanted to take on,” Winner Sed says. “Thinking about nutrition, being in a food desert, and making whole healthy food available year-round spoke volumes to us.
“We took those thoughts a step further with the idea of offering training and education in the food industry – which can be countless applications be it growing, distribution, food services,” she continues. “As aquaponics is a transformational option for food production – what better place than The Landing?”
The building is well suited to accommodate the weight of the equipment – and thousands of gallons of water – needed for the operation. The concrete floors are 15 to 18 inches thick, according to Campbell.
“We didn’t need to come in and worry about any additional support,” he says.
Funds raised for the $1.7 million project include $300,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission and $480,000 from the city of Sharon’s American Rescue Plan allocation, including $80,000 for West-Winn to operate the aquaponics facility. Winner Development, another Winner-related entity, Buhl Health Foundation and Community Foundation of Western PA and Eastern OH were among the other funders.
Early plans that called for placing the aquaponics operation on the third floor of the building were estimated to cost $4 million and deemed too costly.
“The issue with [retrofitting] these buildings is the cost of renovation,” Campbell says. “Bringing the building up to code becomes an expensive proposition.”
HOW AQUAPONICS WORKS
Seeds are planted in trays of rock wool, a pH-neutral wicking material, where they are grown instead of in soil. The plants spend about two weeks in the seed trays then are transferred into nutrient film technology racks. After a few more weeks to establish a root base, the plants are transferred to rafts where they will grow to harvest size.
“We are in the final stages of cycling our fish tanks to create the bacteria and nutrients for the plants,” Campbell says. “We started our daily planting this week, so in 40 days we’ll be on a daily harvest schedule.”
The aquaponics farm is growing six varieties of lettuce, two varieties of basil and various “microgreens and fun things to continue the science-based agriculture that we’re working on,” says WestWinn’s Studor. Once the daily harvest schedule begins, it will produce 500 to 600 heads of lettuce and herbs each day, or about 170,000 annually.
“We’re growing tilapia, which is an edible tropical fish,” he says. Beginning with the first harvest, which should take place in February, the operation will produce about 10,000 pounds of fish per year, or 500 fish per month.
The goal is to sell about 30% of what is produced through retail channels – farm markets will be an initial distribution focus – and the rest wholesale, Studor says.
“We should have about a half dozen restaurants to start,” he says.
While Studor focuses on restaurants and other local connections, Sed, Campbell and Miller have been establishing relationships with grocery stores. With the oldest plants now mature enough to harvest, they will have products to show to customers and distributors.
“We can start sending out samples and bringing people in to show them the quality of the product,” Studor says.
“We want to make sure we can produce on a consistent basis,” Campbell adds.
“The important thing is that they have something to see,” Miller affirms. Visitors touring the center have been “extremely excited” about not only seeing the product but also about the community involvement and the reuse of the former Westinghouse plant.
“People are excited to see anything happening that’s new, and something this unique is even more exciting,” Winner Sed says. “The produce is fresher and lasts longer so businesses have better options. The fact that there is so little water used in a closed-loop system addresses water conservation.”
People are paying more attention to their food, including how local ingredients are grown, concerns about importing and disease, according to Studor. Nearly everyone wants to learn more about the food system, so it is spawning increased interest in agriculture among the young and old.
The initiative also will have educational components. The Shenango Campus of Penn State University has expressed interest in offering courses utilizing the aquaponics space and potentially operating a year-round indoor marketplace where students could focus on the “business aspect” of agriculture and entrepreneurship, Campbell says. What shape Penn State Shenango’s involvement would take remains in flux, as the facility needed to be in place before the proposal could advance.
Interested parties from the university – including board members and alumni – visit every couple of weeks. “They’re strong advocates of the program,” he says.
Several Mercer County school superintendents who visited have expressed interest in bringing students there for field trips. Another aspect of the center’s mission could involve enlisting veterans, people with disabilities and individuals recovering from addiction to work at the site.
“One of our missions is to get those that need to see a future be able to see a future,” Miller says. The “big vision” also includes agriculture-based tourism and offering public classes.
The aquaponics operation occupies about 25,000 square feet of The Landing and space is available for expansion. There is an additional 30,000 square-feet on one floor and 40,000 square-feet on another. The operation also could be expanded to the front of the building.
Growing is just a matter of “adding more fish tanks and beds,” Studor says.
Pictured at top: Rob Studor holds a flat of lettuce produced at The Landing. Studor oversees the farm as director of aquaponics for WestWinn Urban Ag.