Hydroponic farm puts down roots in Springfield’s Gasoline Alley

MassLive, July 5, 2017, by Carolyn Robbins

SPRINGFIELD — Call it an island in a food desert.

That’s how former chef Tony Renzulli and business partner Jack Wysocki think of their new business, Urban Artisan Farm, which uses hydroponic technology to produce 100 heads of lettuce a week in a greenhouse complex at 250 Albany St.

The indoor farm, located in a section of the city known as Gasoline Alley because of the huge fuel storage tanks that dot the landscape, is one of several businesses operating out of a quirky set of buildings owned and managed by entrepreneur Joseph Sibilia.

It may seem an unlikely spot for a hydroponic farm. But for Renzulli, whose vision is to bring fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods year-round, it’s perfect. There aren’t many places in the Armory-Liberty Street neighborhood where residents have easy access to fresh vegetables, he said.

Eventually, Renzulli hopes to expand the hydroponic concept to abandoned structures throughout the city with the goal of providing fresh produce and jobs to residents of low-income neighborhoods.

Wellspring Harvest breaks ground for greenhouse

The 2-acre facility means that the old Chapman Valve site in Indian Orchard is being reused.

For now, Renzulli and Wysocki are content to bring the farm’s weekly yield of fresh greens to local farmer’s markets, including a downtown location. They offer red and green Bibb lettuce and microgreens, which are immature but edible leaves.

They are currently building new structures at Gasoline Alley to expand  their growing capacity. They also plan to add the cultivation of cucumbers and tomatoes to their year-round operation.

“We’re selling out at locations downtown and at MassMutual’s home office on State Street. We sell out wherever we go,” Wysocki said.

Renzulli calls his planting system the “tenzulli,” explaining that he has 10 rows of plants in 2,600 square feet. The beauty of hydroponic farming, Renzulli said, is that it’s climate controlled.

“You don’t have to worry about Mother Nature’s bad moods,” he said, pointing to the havoc unfavorable weather conditions can wreak on local farms.

“Take last year’s Wilbraham peach crop,” he said. “It was done in a weekend.”

Before his latest enterprise, Renzulli gained local fans of his silky, buttery lettuce varieties, which sold out in the first hour at Forest Park’s winter farmer’s market. The lettuce sells for $3 a head.

Renzulli is a chef by trade. He worked at restaurants including The Student Prince and the former Johann’s, and was always an amateur gardener. Ten years ago, after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery, Renzulli said he began researching how to live a healthier lifestyle.

“I went on a quest to grow my own food,” he said.

Renzulli said he became fascinated with the idea of self-sufficient microfarming. After a stint  at Farm Tech in Enfield, he managed a community greenhouse and acquired what he calls the “equivalent of a BA in hydroponics.”

In addition to several varieties of lettuce, Urban Artisan Farms sells field pea shoots, sunflower shoots, radish microgreens, mung bean sprouts, spicy mix sprouts and Swiss chard picked to order.

Urban Artisan Farm sells produce at the following locations and times:

  • MassMutual, 1295 State St., Springfield, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays
  • MassMutual, 100 Bright Meadow Blvd., Enfield, from noon to 3 p.m on Thursdays
  • Downtown Springfield Farmer’s Market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays
  • Hampden Farmer’s Market at Bethesda Church from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays