Freight Farms containers use hydroponic techniques (without soil) to grow year round
Each large metal box can grow as much produce in a year as two acres of farmland, though you'd never know without peeking in.
From the outside, it looks like a shipping container you might see stacked on a barge. That is in fact what it was before being repurposed by a company called Freight Farms into a self-contained, hydroponic garden unit called a "Leafy Green Machine."
And now Holyoke has two of them. They sit side by side in a vacant lot on Race Street next to the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, where some of the leafy green vegetables grown inside will eventually make their way.
The pair of 40-foot-long Freight Farms containers was delivered last week, thanks to an investment of $208,000 from the state, and just in time for Holyoke Innovation Week, which continues through Sunday, April 29.
The funds were provided by MassDevelopment, as part of its Transformative Development Initiative, which is meant to accelerate economic growth in its Gateway Cities' communities. The project will provide year-round urban agriculture, education and training opportunities for city residents and Holyoke Community College students. Other partners include Nuestras Raices, the city of Holyoke, and the Holyoke Redevelopment Authority.
The official announcement of the Holyoke Freight Farms urban agriculture project was delivered on the site Thursday by Jay Ash, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development.
"Gateway Cities are the center of our economic activity," he said. "It's important for them to succeed, not only for the region but for the Commonwealth."
Ash noted the location of the two containers near the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, a project supported by another grant from his office. "Every time you do something successful, it just makes you want to do something more," he said. "I can't say enough good things about having Holyoke Community College in this community – and doing great things."
Bill Fogarty, HCC vice president of Administration and Finance, said people at HCC were excited about supporting urban agriculture in Holyoke and using the container farms as training grounds for students with a wide variety of academic interests, from business and marketing to culinary arts, nutrition and sustainable agriculature.
"I think we can all feel the momentum in downtown Holyoke and I think we can all agree that the momentum is based on partnerships," he said.
One of the partners is the nonprofit community gardening group Nuestras Raices, which will manage the container farms. Hilda Roque, executive director of Nuestras Raices, noted that her agency already manages 17 community gardens in the city plus a 38-acre farm.
"When they say, grow food, we're there," she said. "We grow a lot of food and that's our mission ... This will give our farmers the opportunity to extend their knowledge and help others. We're always looking for alternatives where we can grow more food."
The city and HCC will share the costs of utilities, maintenance and labor.
The containers will be used to teach hydroponic growing techniques to agricultural interns from the community and HCC.
Some of the harvested produce – lettuce, spinach, basil, cilantro and other leafy greens and herbs with shallow roots – will be sold to the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, HCC on-campus dining services, and local restaurants. Some will be donated to help feed hungry people on campus and in the community.
"These container farms provide a means of addressing food insecurity in Holyoke while at the same time offering experiential learning opportunities for resident interns and students in HCC's sustainability, nutrition, culinary arts and health programs," HCC president Christina Royal said earlier this week. "Partnerships such as these are key to transforming Holyoke and enabling our community to thrive."
PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: Jay Ash, secretary of Housing and Economic Development, stands with a group of other notables, in front of one of two Freight Farms containers delivered to an empty lot on Race Street in Holyoke.