Nestled in the industrial park on Albany Street in Springfield, MA, behind a bright green building labeled Gasoline Alley sits an old warehouse that holds the promise of a fresh future: Urban Artisan Farm. Although they have 2,500 square feet of garden space in Wilbraham, their main venture in Springfield is hydroponic farming: growing plants in water, rather than soil.
I met Jack Wysocki in the main building of Gasoline Alley, where customers can come in to buy fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and more from Urban Artisan.
When I asked about Urban Artisan’s mission, Jack, one of the two owners, said, “We’re doing this for a few reasons. The area we’re in is a food desert, first off. There are a few places four or five miles away to get food, but nowhere in the area to get anything that’s actually fresh.”
They also help by enlisting volunteers from the area, which mainly consist of disadvantaged youths or previously incarcerated persons.
“These kids,” Jack said, “they’ve all had rough spots. We’re doing what we can to grow the business, because you have to have a solid business before you can do a lot of social good. It’s pretty much just me and Tony right now, except for some of the help we get.”
Jack then walked me down behind Gasoline Alley, where the hydroponic greenhouse was actually located. It’s an old building with bright green doors on one side and some graffiti on the bricks. Matching much of the rest of the city in many ways, it seems an inhospitable location for growing food. And yet, when I stepped inside, it was like I had entered another world. Inside the warehouse, fluorescent lights hummed and shone light on the hundreds of plants growing on racks and float tables, suspended in water or embedded into fibrous mats. There were bright red and pink stalks of rainbow chard, swiss chard, field pea shoots, all kinds of herbs, several varieties of microgreens, and, of course, lettuce. With their full system, Urban Artisan Farm can regularly grow over a thousand heads of lettuce in under two months.
“The first thing out of people’s mouths when they hear hydroponic,” Jack told me, “is ‘oh, so you’re not organic.’ And no, we’re not organic, and we never will be as long as the certification for it is soil-based. However,” he said, showing me the elaborate systems of pipes and tubes feeding all of the plants, “we have more control over what’s going into the plants than anything grown in soil. We check the pH levels and nutrient formulas every day.”
Control over the environment is a key factor of this business, and early on presented issues for Jack and his business partner, Tony Renzulli. Jack cited heat and humidity as two of the worst struggles to overcome in opening Urban Artisan.
“The heat in here was terrible, ‘cause it’s such an old warehouse. We had this old propane heating system that we just couldn’t control. But Tony and I did a little research, and we built this toy,” Jack said proudly, displaying the dual furnace system they had built themselves. I started to realize that that’s what made this place so special: everything in here had been thought out carefully and built by these two exactly for the needs of the space and the business. The pride of the greenhouse is their Tenzulli: the hydroponics system designed by Tony which grows 800 heads of lettuce on its own.
Tony was already hard at work when we came into the greenhouse to ask him more about the design and science behind it all.
“Hey Anthony!” Jack yelled, “These guys have some questions for you!”
Without missing a beat, Tony called out, “Seventeen, blue, Tuesday. Those are my stock answers, they’ve been right once in my life and I’m sticking to them.”
After jotting those down to use for myself later, I asked him more about the design behind the Tenzulli that Jack had extolled.
Tony said, “Well, the guys came up with the name—It had ten columns and my name’s Renzulli. And, well as you can see those are someone else’s pots that we used—”
“But Tony designed the whole piping system, the wiring, lighting, all of it, just like we did with the rest,” Jack said.
“Also, I have some ideas for a Tenzulli 2.0, which we could patent in the future.”
For all his humility, Tony has an intimate understanding of the nutrient formulas and processes that go into the hydroponics system.
“When I was working for Farmtek, we consulted Dr. Morgan— she’s a world authority in hydroponics. We told her what we were trying to do and she helped us develop a base nutrient formula for the plants. Sixteen micro and macro-nutrients, the same kind of things that the plants would normally absorb through the soil, only they don’t have to wait for bacteria and fungi to help break it down for them. We use the same formula for our vegetative plants, and then differ it depending on what each one needs. Tomatoes, for instance, start off as vegetative plants but need different nutrients once they start to flower. I like to joke that the plants are all lazy—they don’t have to work at all, it’s like they’re just sitting on the couch eating bon bons all day. Hey, do you like radishes?
”I told him, “of course,” and he showed me where they were growing microgreens. It was a dense patch of white, pink, and purple stalks with leafy green fronds poking up. I plucked a few of the pink ones, which turned out to be hong vit radishes, and took a bite.
It’s one thing to see a place like Urban Artisan, where all these plants are growing all around you in what looks like a sci-fi set up. It’s another thing to taste the food grown there. It was incredible—the hong vit radishes were almost sweet at first, then blossomed into something between spice and earthiness. And on top of it all, there was an overwhelming freshness to it that showed whatever they were doing with the nutrient formulas was working.
When I asked if, after growing their business, they’d ever move out of Gasoline Alley, Jack said no.
“We’ll never move out of here. That’s one of the things for us— where we are, you’d be surprised how many people we’re helping. The Healthy Incentive Program really solidified, in our minds, how hard it is for people to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Even if they have EBT or SNAP benefits, a lot of times they’re forced not to buy fresh food because something else might be cheaper. Processed foods are usually going to be cheaper than buying real, fresh, healthy food, and that’s not cool. So, through HIP, we’ve found we’re really helping people. People have thanked us for helping them to eat healthy again. This area is a food desert— meaning no access to fresh foods—but we’re closing that gap.”
From making produce available and affordable to holding farming and sustainability workshops, Urban Artisan Farm has set itself up as a business with incredible heart and integrity. They are about to celebrate their one-year-anniversary on April 18, and it’s clear that this will only be the first of many.
URBAN ARTISAN FARM . 250 ALBANY STREET . SPRINGFIELD, MA . (413) 301-7955 . URBANARTISANFARM.ORG . FACEBOOK.COM/UAF250