Fresh Freight from Corner Stalk Farm
Photos by Katie Noble
It is a suffocating late summer Friday afternoon on Condor Street in East Boston. The hefty guy in the body shop on the corner is sweating like a marathoner. But inside, 6,000 heads of lettuce are enjoying springtime. It’s always springtime at Corner Stalk Farms, 62 degrees, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And 250,000 heads of soft green lettuce couldn’t be happier.
Tucked away on a gritty corner of Boston’s most diverse neighborhood is Corner Stalk Farm, owned by new-wave farmers, Connie and Shawn Cooney. Corner Stalk is Boston’s newest, most futuristic, and arguably most productive farm. This farm doesn’t look like a farm. There’s no dirt, no tractors or pitchforks. No great smell of vegetation. And no green. Well that’s not exactly right. The green is supplied by five brightly painted green and white insulated freight cars—the kind of freight cars that typically haul thousands of pounds of frozen meat by rail from one end of America to the other.
Inside each freight car is a high-tech, low maintenance hydroponic farm that will harvest over 250,000 heads of lettuce per year—fresh tender heads with names like Cherokee Crisp, Black Hawk, Salanova, along with basil, dill, and other pungent culinary herbs. All maturing silently in their peat moss capsules, under a purple glow from a blue and red LED sun. It isn’t the annual capacity of a quarter of a million heads of lettuce growing on less than an acre of city land that should jump out at you. It’s the all-year part. What makes Corner Stalk Farm remarkable is its capacity to grow astoundingly green tender leaves every single week. Twelve months a year. In the middle of Boston. On a tiny gravel lot that used to store cars that had been towed. The Cooneys can grow lettuce even in the middle of a blizzard. (They did this past winter and have the photos to prove it.) Astonishingly, all this green abundance is powered by a nickel’s worth of electricity and a re-circulating watering system that consumes only 25 gallons of water in a week. Less water than you’d use in one good long shower.
Shawn and Connie Cooney started Corner Stalk Farms because they wanted to do something different. Connie, a natty friendly blond, was ready to retire as a fifth grade reading and writing teacher. Shawn, an engineer with architect-cool glasses and a mop of tangled gray curls, was a serial entrepreneur with four successful startups in the computer software world. He was itchy for his next business. The Cooneys were looking for a little business they could work on as a team. The next fun project in a baby boomer’s life. They were not looking to save the planet or even be at one with it. According to Connie Cooney, they weren’t even particularly dedicated backyard gardeners, “We have a nice garden at home in Marblehead, MA but gardening was never my thing," says Connie. Travel is her thing. So is her book club and her family and friends.
Together they developed four business plans—one was for a distillery. Another was for an app that would help baby boomers better interface with digital devices. A third was for a men’s clothing store that would be around the corner from their home. Shawn is a confessed “clothes guy” and hates seeing grown men dressed in unstylish clothes that don’t fit right. “Why do all these guys think they need to wear extra large clothes? Is it that they don’t want their clothes to touch their skin?”, he asks plaintively.
The fourth business plan was for a freight farm. Shawn had learned about Freight Farms from a presentation he attended at Mass Innovation. Intrigued by the story, aware of its potential, he made it his business to meet the founders, Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman. (See Edible Boston, Fall 2013.)
Ultimately, the Cooneysbought the first freight car sold by the company. But not without Shawn doing exhaustive research for the business plan, a pretty clear idea of why his earlier ventures were so successful. He researched the size and shape of the market for fresh local greens; the optimal settings for the temperature, the growing medium, the technology forregulating the plants, the software and hardware, the pumps and generators, all the rules and regulations surrounding the edgy new idea of Urban Ag.
Shawn calculated the costs and the revenues, thought about the risks, and he came to a clear decision. "We could do this and make money. The market for the product was there, the market could grow, we could become profitable quickly, and it sounded like fun,” Shawn says, grinning while smoothing his perfectly tailored jeans, and his bright striped socks. Shawn is clear that this was never meant to be a non-profit mission. The business needed to be able to sustain itself through profits. “You can’t have a sustainable business if it doesn’t make money.”
The Cooneys decided that Corner Stalk Farms was a go. The other business ideas would have to wait. Just a bit.
Hydroponic farming is a fast process—approximately six weeks from seed-to-table. The lettuces at Corner Stalk Farm start as seeds, become tiny “seedlings” within three weeks, and then are transplanted to the vertical growing system where they are ready for harvest approximately three weeks later.
Freight Farming itself is a surprisingly simple system, a mixed marriage of elegant technology and nature’s basics. It is incredibly well suited to thumb its nose at weather and day-night light and temperature fluctuations. The farm is lit by blue and red spectrum LED lights for 16 hours a day, twelve months a year for maximum growth. No short days. No long days. No worrying about the winter solstice. If Shawn decides he wants to slow down growth a little, maybe he is a little ahead of market demand, he can reduce the hours of light to as little as 8 hours a day and hold off a harvest for a week or so.
A second ingenious concept that adds to freight farming’s success: switching days and nights. The plants don’t know that other people are sleeping when they are awake. Illuminating at night during the summer heat saves on air conditioning in the freight cars. Lights left on during winter nights add heat to the coldest portion of the day, reducing heating costs. The freight car is insulated, keeping it at a constant temperature and completely protecting the contents from the vagaries of the outside climate. Imagine what would happen to a freight car rolling the rails carrying a load of thousands of pounds of frozen meat if the interior couldn’t be kept at a constant temperature.
And what about water? Another bane of agriculture. (Just ask the Californians!) True to its name, hydroponic growing requires a dependable but stingy water supply to carry the vital nutrients to the young seedlings. A pump re-circulates the water, coming in as a stream for the seedlings in their horizontal stack of beds, and then as a top to bottom waterfall for the lettuce heads growing vertically like ivy bouquets along the side walls of the container.
Only a year since its inception, Corner Stalk Farms has become a profitable retail and wholesale enterprise. The farm distributes its addictive fresh basil and salad greens wholesale through Katsiroubas Bros., a Boston produce distributor that supplies restaurants and other larger buyers. As of August, Corner Stalk Farms also sells retail. It is one of the opening vendors in the brand new Boston Public Market. Connie runs the retail shop at the Market, on her feet from 8am to 8pm, explaining the concept of hydroponic farming as she sells bags of luscious fresh local greens to the public. Shawn runs the “farm” and the business, spending most days in his freight cars tinkering with the settings for light, temperature, air and nutrients that ensure happy plants.
But for all the fast success, getting there was not so simple. Urban farming is a new concept for most municipalities. How to permit and regulate an urban freight farm that would actually sell city-grown produce to customers was a head scratcher for most civic officials. Shawn doggedly followed the regulations for urban agriculture as they progressed through each city and town conveniently located near his home. He attended community meetings and paid calls on every relevant public official. His first preference was for a town on the North Shore, with a quick commute from his Marblehead home. But Boston was the leading edge. Former Mayor Menino had recently appointed Edith Murnane as the “food czar,” and one of her signature accomplishments was passing Article 89, which allowed conforming Urban Ag ventures to proceed within the city of Boston. Shawn was right on it.
He applied to the USDA for a loan to get the freight cars underwritten as farm services equipment, the same kind of loan that would finance a combine or a truck. When Corner Stalk’s loan was approved, it was the first USDA loan applied to a hydroponic farm. It was a new concept for the USDA, and so the government dutifully researched the viability of hydroponic farming. “They vetted it for us, and that helped us a lot.” Shawn explains that the government had stopped lending to farmers with stand alone greenhouses because “they don’t work financially. They are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.” But an enclosed, climate controlled, artificially lit growing structure made sense to the USDA lenders.
East Boston also made sense. There were lots of under-utilized lots and the commute from the North Shore to the flats of Eastie wasn’t a horrendous daily prospect. Shawn found an open lot owned by an East Boston tow truck company and settled his freight cars on it. Not exactly Little House on the Prairie. Shawn was ecstatic. Nine weeks from the time Corner Stalk bought its first freight car, the farm was selling basil to Katsiroubas Bros. for their wholesale accounts.
Another “lucky break” for Corner Stalk Farms – though it is hard to call it luck when a canny, well-organized entrepreneur seizes an opportunity quickly. After 10 years of chitchat, the Boston Public Market was taking applications for Massachusetts vendors and farmers who wanted a year-round opportunity to sell direct-to-consumers. Corner Stalk was a perfect specimen for the market: locally-grown, green, and with a year-round product. They were selected out of a field of over 300 applications for vendor licenses. When the Boston Public Market opened on the last day of July 2015, Connie was there at her indoor farm stand, smiling behind the counter. Her bright green bags of lettuce filling the glass display case.
Connie is a full partner in the endeavor, though she confesses that it feels like “she jumped off a career cliff” in the transition from teaching to full-time retail sales. She finds she loves being at the Boston Public Market, loves the social interaction with the customers, loves the buzz of the marketplace and can’t even complain about standing on her feet 12 hours a day. “After all, I was a teacher so I’m used to being on my feet,” she says cheerfully. Two weeks in, though it’s early days, the Cooneys say the Market is working for them. They’ve ramped up to five freight cars on the lot in Eastie, and are selling out most days. The future is even brighter for Corner Stalk Farm. Late summer is still lettuce weather for the conventional farms. But come winter, Corner Stalk will be the only lettuce game in town.
Is Corner Stalk the future of local farming, a model solution to feeding the next one billion people? Shawn and Connie Cooney aren’t given to big statements. Shawn is more given to facts. He takes me through the math, explaining that you have to grow with density for any kind of urban farming to make business sense. (“Otherwise, farming is just about green space and getting your hands in the dirt.”) Corner Stalk grows 20 plants on each square foot versus standard farming techniques that yield 1.75 plants per square foot. Additionally, Corner Stalk can grow 12 months a year while the typical Northeast farming cycle lasts only six or seven months.Looking at the 600 or so calculated open acres in the city of Boston that could be used for green space, or for growing, Shawn reasons that conventional urban agriculture can’t really make a dent in the demand for edible greens in a population of a million plus in the metropolitan area that consumes four servings per day of produce. But freight farms all over the city? “That could make a huge impact on the food system,” he says with a wicked gleam in his eye.
Corner Stalk Farm
Boston Public Market
100 Hanover Street
This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.