Moffat County greenhouse project receives USDA grant for feasibility study |

Moffat County greenhouse project receives USDA grant for feasibility study

Ben McCanna

Marilynn Hill is attempting to launch Planet Yampa, a start-up company that seeks to build an agricultural complex in Moffat County. Last week, the project was awarded a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund a feasibility study.

Marilynn Hill said she has a vision for something big in Moffat County.

"There are lots of people that are reaching and wanting something different … something they can support their families with," she said.

"I think this is a project that can do that."

The project is Planet Yampa, a large-scale hydroponic greenhouse complex that could potentially produce mass amounts of fruits and vegetables, manufacture food products, and create 600 new jobs.

"It's actually mind-boggling," Hill said of the possible project's scope.

Hill envisions a complex, located somewhere in Moffat County, made up of 12 greenhouses and other buildings for nurseries, manufacturing, administration and research.

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The greenhouses, however, will be the largest of their kind, she said.

The footprint for just one greenhouse will be equal to the size of 32 football fields. Inside, vegetables will grow in rows of 30-foot-tall columns.

Hill estimates the project will take up to eight years to complete, and carry a price tag of $200 million.

Hill acknowledges that the project perhaps sounds farfetched. But, Planet Yampa just received a vote of confidence from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last week, the project received $50,000 in the form of a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant.

The grant requires Hill and the eight other investors who comprise Yampa Planet LLC to match 25 percent of the grant, or $12,000.

The $62,000 will be administered by the Steamboat Springs-based nonprofit group Community Agriculture Alliance to fund a feasibility study.

Hill said the group will soon post a request for proposal for a company to conduct the study. The company with the winning bid should be able to complete the study within six months.

The feasibility study will focus on six components of the proposed project:

• Is there an adequate site in Moffat County, and will land-use regulations allow for it?

• Is it technologically feasible?

• Will the vertical growing process work?

• Is there a market for the products and is distribution feasible?

• What are the costs involved in designing and constructing the greenhouses?

• Is a workforce available in Moffat County to support operations?

Hill said she's not apprehensive about the study. She contends the project is feasible.

"I'm reserved, but I'm not nervous," she said. "We've done so much research up to this point … I wouldn't be putting my money into it if I didn't think there was a very good opportunity for this to happen."

Hill acknowledges that climate and scarce water resources in Northwest Colorado make the project seem counter-intuitive, but it's not without precedent.

"There are a number of greenhouse projects around the United States," she said. "As a matter of fact, there are two large greenhouse projects that are going on in Arizona. You would think, 'Wow, they're short on water, it's very hot, they have transportation issues.'"

One example is Eurofresh Farms in Willcox, Ariz., she said.

Planet Yampa would be larger than Eurofresh, she said. It would also be different from any greenhouse operation in the country because it would have the manufacturing component.

Manufacturing, or value-added production, is what makes the scale of the project viable when seeking out investors, Hill said.

"Is the ROI (return on investment) high enough for venture capitalists to come in and put that amount of money down to make this happen?" Hill said. "Well, that's where the value added comes in. Any time you take a raw form of anything and you bring value to it by transforming it into something else, that's where you get a higher return on investment."

Value-added products, in this case, might be tomato sauces or gluten-free foods, she said.

Manufacturing products also opens avenues for more grants, such as USDA Rural Development Value-Added Producer Grants.

According to the USDA website, the grants are "designed to encourage independent producers of agricultural commodities to process their raw products into marketable goods, thereby increasing farm income."

Location also plays a part in potential grant money, Hill said.

"We want to stay in Moffat County because it's considered an enterprise fund area … there are certain grants you can qualify for," she said. "The other reason we're staying here is because this is really where we can have the most impact on a community."

Hill moved to Craig from the Front Range in April 2010 when she was named director of the Moffat County Tourism Association. She announced her resignation from that post in April.

Hill said she has more than 20 years of experience in project management, including a stint at telecommunications company U.S. West.

"I've never done a project of this size, but I've certainly been involved in large scale projects, multi-, multi-million-dollar projects," she said.

If the feasibility study determines that the greenhouse project is possible in Moffat County, Hill said the next step would be to develop a business plan and present it to potential investors.

Hill said she's confident her vision will someday be reality.

"I have a lot of sleepless nights, but it's never about it not happening," she said. "It's more about wondering if we're putting the right people and components together to make it happen."

In the meantime, she said such a grand project would be impossible without humility.

"You need to be humble enough to say, 'I don't know all the answers,'" she said. "But, I do know enough to say, 'I need to be able to ask and I need to be able to listen.'

"And, if you go about it that way, you're going to be OK in the end."

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