News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Compass, April 17, 2014
Misty Morning Farm awarded $10,000 community food grant

Sean Dooley uses aquaponic, vertical growing in Blue Hill

“Stuff grows in my greenhouse in January,” said Sean Dooley of Misty Morning Farm in Blue Hill, Maine. “It just doesn’t grow as fast as in July.” The farm was awarded a 2014-15 $10,000 grant from Maine Farmland Trust to build a second greenhouse and supply Tree of Life food pantry with 100 pounds of fresh produce each week.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

What began with a greenhouse and a desire to help has been transformed into a working operation with a name and $10,000 in grant money behind it.

Misty Morning Farm in Blue Hill may not look like a typical farm right now, but this summer it will begin supplying the Tree of Life food pantry with 100 pounds of fresh, green produce each week.

“I just wanted to do something that was positive,” said Sean Dooley, who moved to Blue Hill with his wife and two daughters four years ago, in a recent interview.

Dooley built his solar-powered, 240 square foot greenhouse on his Mines Road property and, using aquaponic, vertical farming, is able to grow for 10 months a year, producing four times the amount of food than a “similar, outside garden,” Dooley said.

On a recent, frigid March afternoon, the greenhouse was at least 75 degrees with a damp, jungle atmosphere, helped by the vines of young bok choy leaves sprouting from floor-to-ceiling columns and water dripping from tubes in a goldfish pool.

The grant from Maine Farmland Trust will help build a second greenhouse, which Dooley said will cost about $13,000. He is in the process of securing four acres of reclaimed farmland in Blue Hill to build a 640 foot greenhouse and a hoop house for chickens that he estimates will supply 15 to 20 dozen eggs weekly.

“We have a signed contract,” he said, but he is waiting to close on the property before revealing its location.

Misty Morning Farm is a “private, not-for-profit food pantry farm,” Dooley said, that will cover costs over and above the grant. He registered the farm on March 24, just days after Maine Farmland Trust awarded the community food grant and immediately put up a website, mistymorning.me.

“Misty Morning Farm was specifically created for this project,” Dooley said. “Everything we grow is going to Tree of Life.”

Farming with fish and towers

In aquaponic farming, fish live in containers that pipe water and fish waste into growing plants that, in turn, clean and filter the water before it returns to the fish pool.

Dooley uses goldfish in his aquaponic system, and pipes water into vertical growing towers and tubs.

“It’s a time-tested, proven design,” Dooley said. To keep the greenhouse warm, solar panels combine with close-cell foam and reflective insulation. The electricity is supplied from solar panels installed in Dooley’s home.

“We grow everything,” he said. “Last year we grew lettuce, tomatoes, cukes…We’re growing cilantro for our friends at El El Frijoles.”

Building an aquaponic, vertical greenhouse costs “a little more” than a traditional one, but uses 10 percent of the water, according to Dooley, and has a longer growing season.

“It fits in spirit with the [MFT community] food grant…maximized social impact and sustainability.”

The MFT grant specifies that Misty Morning Farms will supply Tree of Life with bok choy, lettuce, chard, collard greens and kale each week.

Some of the customers who use Tree of Life “maybe don’t necessarily eat kale or bok choy, maybe all of a sudden that becomes part of their diet,” Dooley said.

Providing 100 pounds of produce each week is “scratching the surface,” he added. “When you’re serving 200 people [weekly], that’s a Band-aid on a severed leg.” His goal is to increase his delivery to 200 pounds weekly by 2015.

Dooley has been a supporter of the Blue Hill food pantry since moving to Blue Hill. “I started to talk to [volunteer] Rick Traub and other people to get a better idea of what could be helpful. If I showed up once a week with a bag of groceries, that would be more of a hindrance…They need to have a consistent, reliable quantity.”

Traub said a regular fresh produce delivery will be a first for the pantry.

“Fresh, green summer produce has been sporadic. [Dooley] really built this specifically for the food pantry.”

This isn’t the first time Tree of Life has benefited from local farms. In 2012, Horsepower Farm in Penobscot contracted with Good Shepherd Food Bank to supply summer crops to the food pantry, and this year has added Penobscot’s King Hill Farm. In addition, Maine Farmland Trust awarded $2,500 grants to King Hill and Blue Zee farms to grow for Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life has provided weekly boxes of food to Peninsula families in need since 1988, and that need has steadily grown.

Currently the pantry feeds more than 200 families each week, mainly funded by its secondhand clothing store, TurnStyle, and powered 100 percent by around 25 volunteers.

Misty Morning Farm will also run on a volunteer basis—at this point by one volunteer, Sean Dooley.

“It’s the only way I can make it feasible, with me doing it,” he said.

“I’m not a farmer. [But] I know how to grow things. If I’m growing food and I’m delivering it, I’m farming.”