The first worker-owned cooperative commercial greenhouse in Massachusetts marked a milestone today as freshly harvested lettuce was delivered to local stores.
Four varieties of lettuce grown inside a greenhouse built on a once badly polluted piece of land in Springfield’s Indian Orchard neighborhood and harvested by people hoping to work their way out of poverty went on sale Tuesday morning at four Springfield-area Big Y stores.
Marcello Rossi, sales manager at Wellspring Harvest greenhouse, delivered 200 heads of lettuce to the four stores and in doing so, he said, launched a new food system in the city of Springfield.
"The new food system means we are going to grow food where people need it most, which is in the city," said Rossi.
It was a modest launch for the first production from an ambitious project. It took three years to raise the money, find a site, and construct the 15,000-square foot greenhouse, which was completed in April.
The first few months were spent growing test crops to obtain the required safety and quality certification from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. Big Y managers also taste tested the lettuce – and rejected one variety – before allowing it in their stores. Big Y also gave advice on packaging and labeling the lettuce, according to Rossi.
"This is a brand new start up project and like anything we need to practice, train, improve and develop," said Rossi.
At this time of year stores are flooded with locally-grown lettuce, but Wellspring hopes its story sets it apart from the competition.
The produce is grown in water using hydroponic technology that is designed to maximize yield, flavor, and nutrition. The same lettuce will be available year round. Also, the greenhouse is part of a social justice movement -- a planned network of for-profit worker-owned cooperatives in low income neighborhoods of Springfield.
Fred Rose, co-director of the Wellspring Cooperative Corp. said seven people currently work at the greenhouse. Five live in the neighborhood.
"Wellspring's mission is really job creation," said Rose.
Wellspring raised $1.5 million for the greenhouse project through a combination of loans and investments.
"All of our investors and lenders are mission-driven folks," explained Rose. " We did not go to traditional banks."
Several of the investors gathered at the Big Y on Cooley Street in Springfield Tuesday morning to see for themselves the lettuce with the Wellspring Harvest label go on sale for the first time.
Myra Marcellin is a senior loan officer at Farm Credit East, which loaned $75,000 to the project.
"They have a strong business plan and mission driven to give back to the community," she said.
The greenhouse has a production capacity of 17,000 heads of lettuce a month. To break even the greenhouse needs to sell 10,000 heads per month, according to Rose.
In addition to Big Y, other customers for the Wellspring Harvest produce are the Springfield Public Schools, Mercy Medical Center, and some local food co-ops.