On a blah gravel lot in East Boston sits an especially cool example of the human ability to invent and adapt. Spend enough time here, and even the most dedicated pessimist might feel hopeful about the future.
It’s not much to look at from the outside: four recycled freight containers, painted a friendly shade of green, sharing a patch of land with some trucks at the base of Eagle Hill.
But inside those containers, it’s spectacular. Disco-lit by thin ribbons of red and blue LED lights, all manner of leafy greens grow in long PVC planters that hang from the ceiling in tight rows. The hydroponic plants are watered and fed by an ingenious, and remarkably efficient, irrigation system. Lush and bursting with flavor, they’re neatly harvested in seconds and then it’s on to restaurants all over the city.
These containers — which make up an operation owners Connie and Shawn Cooney have named Corner Stalk — hold the equivalent of a four-acre farm. The Marblehead couple came to farming just a couple of years ago. Connie, 63, taught in public schools for 35 years, and Shawn, 61, was a tech entrepreneur.
“We’re probably at an age that we shouldn’t be jumping into another business venture,” Connie said. “Our friends are buying places in Florida.”
But they both wanted to try something new, and they believed in what the guys who make the containers — Boston-based Freight Farms — are doing: creating computer-controlled environments that can grow produce year round, anywhere where there’s electricity and a water supply.
What’s not to love about this? It’s reusing materials and putting space that would otherwise be barren — including contaminated land — to productive use. It’s making fresh food available locally all year, which saves money and reduces the environmental costs of shipping and refrigeration. And it’s giving more people a way to make a living from small-scale agriculture.
The Cooneys are happy, packing 100 boxes of greens a week, full of peppery arugula, pungent mustard greens, red and green lettuces, and exotic crops like shiso and epazote.
They’re about to double that output, because Corner Stalk has been chosen as one of the first 33 vendors for the new Boston Public Market, set to open at the Haymarket T station this summer, after years of false starts (and some serious fund-raising).
That will be a glorious day: The city has had a crying need for a year-round food market for decades. A great public market does more than provide fresh, healthy food: It reflects a region’s character. And it supports and promotes the farmers and artisans who have made food their life work.
This is certainly fertile ground for a public food emporium. Agriculture has grown slightly in Massachusetts in recent years, even as it has declined in other states, and 80 percent of Massachusetts farms remain family-owned. We’ve become devotees of community-supported agriculture and of farm-to-table cooking, and we support close to 300 farmers’ markets across the state. And, mirroring a national trend, people who can afford it are even more devoted to local food than to organic produce.
Having a dry, predictable, affordable, year-round spot where they can sell their produce directly to consumers is going to transform Corner Stalk, making it way easier for the Cooneys to make a living from those virtuous green trailers in East Boston. It’ll do the same for the farmers, cheesemakers, fishmongers, butchers, and bakers who will be setting up shop around them — all of whom will be selling goods grown or made in New England.
Boston, in sum, is becoming an even foodie-er place. There is no downside to that. As Robert Frost might have said if he’d spent the morning where I did: Good lettuce makes good neighbors.