Wellspring Collaborative plans worker-owned greenhouse to grow produce for local hospitals, colleges

It might be littered with bottle caps and old tires now, but within a year the fallow land at Bay and Tapley streets in Springfield could be home to an environmentally conscious greenhouse initiative.

Springfield-based economic development project Wellspring Collaborative plans to build a hydroponic greenhouse that would provide produce for area hospitals, colleges and school districts, a move that coincides with a push within those institutions to buy local.

“There’s lots of interest,” said Emily Kawano, economist and Wellspring co-director. “One of the issues of the moment is local food.”

Wellspring is hoping to purchase a six-acre, tax-foreclosed industrial site at Bay and Tapley streets for the greenhouse, according to organization co-director Frederic Rose. The land is the former location of Cohen Bros. Metals Recycling, and has the benefit of being positioned along a railroad track and within a mile of Interstate 291.

At this point, the land needs to put out to public bid before Wellspring can submit a formal proposal to purchase it, said Brian Connors, the city’s deputy director of planning and economic development.

But the property has a history of environmental issues. And while work has been done to remove toxins from the land, it will most likely be classified as a brownfield, Wellspring co-director Emily Kawano said.

The land is currently in the environmental assessment phase of the cleanup, which could cost Wellspring as much as $20,000.

If all goes as planned, the greenhouse could be built as soon as fall 2015. The total cost of the project is estimated between $1.7 and $2 million.

“It’s certainly close to folks who need employment,” said Rose, who is also a lecturer with the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Public Policy and Administration. “And it’s in an area where many businesses have shut down. It would enhance the neighborhood in terms of having a site back in production.”

As with Wellspring’s upholstery business, the greenhouse will be worker-owned. Workers who stay with the business for a year would be able to buy a share of the company.

“One of the issues of the moment is local food.”
Ideally, the workers would be from Springfield’s struggling neighborhoods, Kawano said, where entry-level jobs are most scarce. The greenhouse would start off with eight employees.

Wellspring and cooperatives like it are an increasingly popular way to develop business in communities hard hit by economic recession. According to Wellspring’s research, less than 10 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion that local anchor institutions spend on goods and services goes to Springfield businesses.

The organization launched its first business, the Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative, in Dec. 2013.

Wellspring economists have been researching the needs of its potential produce buyers, – primarily hospitals, universities and school districts – to see what product mix would best meet demand. Based on information collected so far, the greenhouse will most likely grow lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and kale, Kawano said.

Baystate Health has already agreed to partner with the Wellspring greenhouse, from which it plans to buy much of the produce used in its cafeteria meals.

In 2009, Baystate signed the Healthy Food in Health Care Pledge with the international coalition Health Care Without Harm. The pledge stipulates that participating institutions purchase 20 percent of their food locally by year 2020.

Nancy Robinson, director of patient and guest services for Baystate Health, said its three hospitals have increased their dairy and produce purchases from 6 percent to 30 percent over the past five years. But partnering with the Wellspring greenhouse would allow Baystate to boost that number even higher through make year-round local purchases, she said.

“We are thrilled about this project,” said Robinson, who also serves as co-chair for the Greater Massachusetts Healthy Food in Healthcare work group.

Robinson said Baystate feels the quality of produce is much better when it’s not transported cross-country, and that purchasing local food promotes community and a greater sense of well being in the city.

Wellspring has discussed purchasing partnerships with several area universities and hopes to clinch a contract with Springfield Public Schools.

Kawano said Wellspring is also interested in building an educational community greenhouse next to the commercial greenhouse, where residents could grow their own produce and learn about urban agriculture.