The first worker cooperative commercial greenhouse in Massachusetts is about to begin production on what was once a badly contaminated industrial site in Springfield.
Lettuce with the label “Grown in Indian Orchard” will soon be in the produce aisles of some local stores and in salads made for cafeterias in public schools and hospitals.
Full production is expected to begin next month at Wellspring Harvest, the 15,000-square foot state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse built on a former brownfields site in Springfield’s Indian Orchard neighborhood.
Fred Rose, co-director of Wellspring Cooperative Corporation, the parent organization of the greenhouse said the project was four years in the making.
"It took us a long time to do the business plan, find land, and then a year of construction," Rose said while standing inside the greenhouse.
Wellspring raised $250,000 of the $1.5 million for the greenhouse project through a direct public offering to individual investors.
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 greenhouse will produce a variety of lettuces, greens and herbs year-round for customers that include the Springfield Public Schools, Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Hospital, Big Y markets, and regional food co-ops.
Rose said demand is strong and he’s confident the greenhouse will meet its sales projections.
"This is fresh. It can be picked and on the shelf the same day. Produce shipped from California loses half its nutritional value in the week it takes to get here," explained Rose. " This is healthier, fresher and we know where it is coming from."
The greenhouse is as much machine as a building. A motorized roof and a series of wall vents control temperature and humidity. The flow of nutrients and oxygen to the plants is mechanically regulated.
The vegetable beds sit on tables. A monorail system with baskets connects the growing and processing areas, so the produce never touches the ground.
"You know with lettuce there is a lot of concern about contamination, so growing hydroponicaly it is clean, local and secure," Rose said.
There are tentative plans to expand production in a few years to include cucumbers and tomatoes.
Four of the five people who work in the greenhouse live within walking distance. Migdalia Garcea has spent 20 years working in farm fields. She said the best part about the greenhouse is she doesn’t have to bend down and dig in the dirt.
" I am very happy here," she said.
Alicia Brown had no agriculture experience before being hired at Wellspring. She’s excited about the prospect of one day being an owner of the business.
" In a year, I know we could be part of the co-op and I am exicted about that," said Brown.
Wellspring’s mission is to create a network of worker-owned enterprises in Springfield as vehicles to lift people out of poverty.
The greenhouse joins a furniture upholstery shop and a window restoration business as part of the Wellspring network.