Worker-Owned Greenhouse Grows Its Business In First Year
The largest urban commercial greenhouse in Massachusetts is marking its first year of production.
Wellspring Harvest, a hydroponic greenhouse built on the once-badly contaminated former Chapman Valve property in Springfield’s Indian Orchard neighborhood, made its first delivery of lettuce to four Big Y supermarkets just about one year ago.
Like many new businesses, the first year has been a learning experience, according to Fred Rose, co-director of Wellspring Cooperative Corporation.
"We have learned an enormous amount about growing, about selling to different markets, about building our work team," said Rose.
The greenhouse now sells to over 25 stores including Whole Foods and seven institutional customers that include area colleges and two hospitals.
"That has been the real success, to get in the door in lots of important places," said Rose.
Wellspring, a non-profit that develops worker-owned cooperative businesses in low-income neighborhoods, initially spent over $1.2 million to purchase the 1- acre site and construct the greenhouse. An additional $250,000 had to be raised to subsidize operations as production ramped up during the first year.
" I think this fall we will get to full production and sales and break even by early spring. That is the idea," said Rose.
One of the greenhouse’s biggest customers is River Valley Co-op market in Northampton. General Manager Rochelle Prunty said there is a growing brand recognition for the lettuce with the Wellspring Harvest label.
" Produce is one of our biggest categories and we specialize in local produce. This lettuce to have it year-round is really special," said Prunty.
Mercy Medical Center in Springfield was an early investor in the greenhouse project. Now, Doreen Fadus, regional executive director of Trinity Health New England, said she’s trying to convince more of the organization’s hospitals to buy the lettuce.
" It is great lettuce," said Fadus. " No one is doing anybody a favor by buying it. It is a great product."
Eight people work at the greenhouse. Alicia Brown, who lives right across the street, was one of the first people hired. Now, after a year of learning the business she has become a worker-owner.
"It feels good to say I'm a part-owner," said Brown.
Wellspring has two other worker-owned cooperatives in Springfield: a furniture repair and re-upholstery business and a window restoration shop.