A new era of agriculture broke ground Wednesday in Connersville for a large scale organic vegetable operation by an Indianapolis businessman.

"That is the future of agriculture," said Alex Carroll, owner of Lifeline Farms.

With the ceremonial ground-breaking ceremony, construction of hooped houses for growing vegetables will begin soon in the 16 acres of cropland along North Indiana 1 in the Airport Industrial Park.

While vegetables are the first crop, some two years down the line, he will begin to raise salmon and use the waste from the fish for plant fertilizer, much like is being done at the Connersville High School Ag Department and Lincoln High School Ag Department, only on a much larger scale.

Last year following a Bicentennial activity, city officials met with Carroll at City Hall to listen to him talk about the fascinating plans for Lifeline Farms, said Russell Hodges, superintendent of the Fayette County School Corporation and Economic Development Group board member.

"The mayor was able to pull a lot of us together to work on this and what I think has made it successful was the partnerships and pooling of talents to find out what it would take to work," he said. "He has invested in the community. He asked about a student from the Whitewater Technical Career Center that might be able to work an internship at another project. He has talked to our vocational ag chair about his visions and his plans for her, and talked about other ways to give our students real life experience."

"It has been a wonderful almost a year since my friend Aaron York brought him down to first meet us from Indianapolis," Mayor Leonard Urban said.

"Over the next 10-20 years agriculture is going to go through a couple major changes and one is going to be akin to being organic, which means you are documenting and proving what your inputs are," Carroll said. "The other change is life will be a lot more robotic, turning on by itself and harvesting by itself. We think both of those will fit well here in Connersville."

He cautioned that people may not see huge amounts of activity at first as the project grows and bugs are worked out of the system. Over time, it will be an appreciable operation. After year one, the farm should produce some 10,000-15,000 pounds of a lettuce-type mix a month. Each hoop house can have up to eight crops a year.

"The demand side for fish protein and high quality vegetables is out stripping supply," Carroll said. "It's going nowhere but up. We've talked with people like Kroger, U.S. Foods, Caito Foods and people like that. It will be someone like that we start with."

Many people are putting in grow lights to grow vegetables in the winter but that eats away at the profits, so natural things should be used as much as possible, he explained. The farm will use 22-feet by 150-feet hoop houses on acres and acres. A properly constructed hoop house will pick up two growing zones, which would make those plants in Connersville think they are in northern Louisiana in the winter without spending for energy.

The design work is currently underway now, he added. The first phase of the project is the 16 acres and will include some 20 employees. The vegetable portion will require employees with a high school diploma and work skills to show up on time and be a good worker. The aquaculture will come when the business and the labor force are stable. Those employees will need more training and education.

The vegetables will be grown in the dirt with soil additives to improve soil conditions, he said.

The vegetables will be U.S. Department of Agriculture certified organic, although today there is no organic aquaculture standards but they will be certified organic when the standards are written, he said.

"There are a few large scale organic operations in the state," he said. "I would term a lot of what has gone on in the organic world to this point as 'hippies who are good gardeners trying to become good farmers.' That is a different perspective than mass production of good organic produce. Farmers are really good at handling large amounts of materials but that has not made it to the organic world. We hope to put automation into place so over time, you start to see the price of organic foods start to come down a little bit."

The hoop houses can grow about any vegetable and other vegetables have been explored, but it comes down to the right labor and the right buyer, he said.

The first phase will be the 16 acres with vegetable and salmon production. In the future, Carroll said the goal is to grow to 350-400 acres with maybe 100 jobs. The land doesn't have to be in one place.

"This is great because we've tried to diversify the economy and we've got the cabinet company (Wayzata) with 97 working there this morning, and now Alex breaking ground, US Wireless is growing and we can't keep up with SAPA," Urban said. "We're not going to be dependent on automotive again, although we have great automotive plants."

Aaron York, who attended CHS, brought Carroll to Connersville initially.

"This man (Carroll) is what makes America great and we need more of that in Connersville," he said. "I left here in 1961 for Indianapolis but my heart is still here and I've got more plans. I like what you've done. You've decided to put partisanship aside and make this happen. Connersville will be the shining light in southeastern Indiana."

"We looked extensively in other areas of the state and it was the work and spirit of cooperation and the very realistic outlook that everybody had," Carroll added of choosing Connersville. "Today, everyone thinks things will happen in six months, but that's not reality as it takes a couple years. That's the attitude we saw here."
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