Farming In A Box Comes To Downtown Holyoke

July 17, 2018 : WAMC Northeast Public Radio, by Paul Tuthill

Freight Farms in Holyoke
The urban agriculture pilot project is funded for two years with $208.000 from MassDevelopment. (photo credit: WAMC)

A new project in urban agriculture is launching this week in western Massachusetts.

Community farmers and college students will grow produce inside two shipping containers that have been outfitted with hydroponic farming technology and set up on a vacant lot in downtown Holyoke. It is a pilot project which, if successful, could help satisfy a demand for locally grown food year-round and create jobs.

The container farm project is a joint venture of the city of Holyoke, Holyoke Community College, and the grassroots urban agriculture organization Nuestras Raices. MassDevelopment provided $208,000 to pay for the project through the agency’s Transformative Development Initiative, which is intended to promote economic growth in the state’s Gateway Cities.

Lettuce and herbs will be grown to be sold to local stores and restaurants. Each of the 40-foot-long containers can grow as much produce in a year as an acre of farmland.

"We have local farms in Holyoke, but I think it is great to try this type of farming and bring the community into it as well," said  Alina Daveledzarova of Westfield, whohas been hired as the container farm manager.

The goal is to grow and sell enough product for the container farm to become self-supporting after two years, according to Insiyah Mohammad Bergeron, manager of the Holyoke Innovation District.

"So we are really excited, but we are treating it as a big experiment," said  Bergeron. "It is an emerging but very expensive technology, so we want accessiblity and equity to be a big part of the project."

Staffing at the container farm will be a mix of HCC students, who will receive course credits for their work, and community members who be paid as apprentices. The staff will turn over about every three months.

Kate Maiolatesi, who heads the sustainable studies programs at HCC, said some of her students will be interns at the container farm.

"They are in a program learning about how to farm and this is an opportunity for them to see what more of an urban farm setting is," said Maiolatesi. "They also are looking for employment and there is growing interest in this kind of farming verus land farming, so we thought it would be a great program to be involved in."

For Nuestras Raices, which operates a 30-acre farm in Holyoke and a network of community gardens, the appeal of the container farm is to able to grow produce year round, says Hilda Roque, the organization’s executive director.

"This came as a blessing because we will be able to grow food during the winter time," said Roque.

The container farm is next to the new HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute which opened earlier this year in a converted former mill building.