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Worker-Owned Greenhouse Built On Brownfields Site Nears Completion

Early next year, during the dead of winter, the first heads of fresh lettuce are expected to be harvested at a new greenhouse built on what was once dangerously polluted land in western Massachusetts.

While production slows during the winter at traditional greenhouses, the Wellspring Harvest greenhouse in Springfield will use a hydroponic technology for year-round growing.

Greenhouse manager Stephen Hilyard said the lettuce will be fresher than anything available once the winter cold and darkness puts an end to the local growing season.

" The lettuce currently coming to this market is from Imperial Valley California and northern Mexico, a trip that takes five days and during that time it looses half its nutritional value, half its vitamins," Hilyard explainted.

Also, because the lettuce never touches the ground, it will be a very high-quality product.

"The Food Safety Modernization Act requires a very high standard to sell to institutional customers like schools and hospitals," said Hilyard. " We have an opportunity to grow a very clean crop that meets all those requirements."

Wellspring Harvest, which is organized as a for-profit worker-owned cooperative business has agreements to sell lettuce, greens and herbs grown in the greenhouse to Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, the Springfield Public Schools, and Big Y Supermarkets.

Annual sales are projected at $300,000 - $350,000, according to Fred Rose, co-director of Wellspring Cooperative.

"Wellspring's big mission is to create jobs -- entry level jobs in this city, where people learn on the job and eventually become owners and share in the profits," explained Rose. "We are going to start with five employees here and expand to nine, who will learn the skills as they work."

The greenhouse project cost $1.3 million, which Rose said came from a combination of loans, grants, and donations.  

" Part of our mission is to bring investment back to inner-city neighborhoods," Rose said.

Built on the site of the former Chapman Valve factory where components for nuclear weapons were manufactured, the greenhouse culminates the redevelopment of blighted land once contaminated by radioactivity.

The rest of the property is covered by a large solar farm.

Armando Feliciano, chairman of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, said a lot of ideas were floated for reusing the site, and the greenhouse turned out to be a great project.

"It took a lot of work and creativity and help from the state and federal goverment, but it happened," said Feliciano. "This is a wonderful opportunity for the city and Wellspring. It is economic development at its best."

Dozens of the cooperative’s backers gathered Thursday to celebrate the near-completion of the construction of the 15,120-square foot greenhouse.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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