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From the ashes - Sid Wainer greenhouse rejuvenates former mill site

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Standard-Times staff writer

NEW BEDFORD — As one drives past a row of industrial buildings, some in decay, in the heart of New Bedford, a large greenhouse offers an unexpected and arresting sight.

Hard by a railroad siding and in the shadow of the old mills that once gave the city its prosperity, a new enterprise, inner-city agriculture, has begun to sprout. Literally.

“We grow 30 to 35 varieties of micro greens in here depending on the time of year,” said David Rose, standing inside the large climate-controlled greenhouse at the corner of Church Street and Coffin Avenue.

Mr. Rose is a grower who oversees this unique operation for Sid Wainer & Son, the well-known specialty produce company whose large Purchase Street distribution center is located just across the tracks.

“Light is the only limiting factor,” Mr. Rose said. “In the summertime, start to finish, it takes about seven days. Winter, it’s 14 to 21 days. In winter, we mostly do the cabbage family — broccoli, Russian red kale, mustard varieties and radish. We also have shingku. We combine them to get a rainbow mix. A half-pound of this will do a hundred entrees, they tell me.”

Micro greens are essentially sprouts, tiny versions of their mature counterparts. Still largely unknown to the general public, they have become a hot and haute item among the cognoscenti of the restaurant trade.

“Micro greens started out about eight years ago, but in the last two years it has just become spectacular. They have really taken off,” said Henry Wainer, president of Sid Wainer & Son.

“If you go to an expensive restaurant in New York and order an appetizer, chances are there will be micro greens on there.”

Much sought after by top chefs, micro greens have become a trend with epicures in Europe and North America. The miniature greens include many exotic varieties, such as mizuna, red amaranth, mint tips and baby popcorn plants. Used primarily with appetizers, they also may accompany a dessert.

“We now have chefs coming here from around the country to look at the different sizes and shapes of these greens. Every chef is looking for something to differentiate his dishes,” Mr. Wainer said. “They are all looking for flavor, intensity and the different shapes and sizes.”

The greenhouse operation on Church Street is all the more remarkable for having been placed atop a brownfield, a site defined by the EPA as one containing or potentially containing hazardous or harmful substances.

“This property used to be the Alden Corrugated Box factory,” Mr. Wainer said. “We did a deal with the city and the federal government. Putting a farm on a brownfield in an inner city of America was something no one had ever thought of doing before.”

The city of New Bedford took over the property for delinquent taxes after the factory closed in 1991. The abandoned building suffered a devastating fire in 1995 and was demolished, leaving large piles of debris on the site. An EPA brownfields grant awarded in 1997 paid for an assessment of the parcel.

“There was a lot of demolition debris used as fill and some contamination of the soil,” said Scott Alfonse, director of New Bedford’s Department of Environmental Stewardship. “Working with the EPA and the DEP, we removed four large underground storage tanks and about 30,000 cubic yards of material and then we backfilled it with clean soil.”

Sid Wainer & Son bought the 2.8-acre central portion from the New Bedford Redevelopment Authority in 2004 and built the 3,000-square-foot greenhouse on the property.

Long known as an importer and distributor of specialty foods, Mr. Wainer’s company is increasingly involved with food production. With demand for micro greens increasing, the growing operation continues to expand and diversify as tastes become more exotic. Edible pansies, for example, are just one of five varieties of edible flowers now grown in his Dartmouth greenhouses, according to Mr. Wainer.

“Imagine growing edible flowers in New England in the middle of January,” Mr. Wainer said proudly. “We are also growing micro mint tips in Dartmouth now. They’re great as a plate garnish.”

The New Bedford greenhouse is employed primarily as a laboratory to test new varieties of greens, he said. Once a crop proves successful there, other growers are enlisted to boost production in their greenhouses.

“We are now employing people all over this region growing for our Jansal Valley Farms brand,” Mr. Wainer said. “Greenhouses that once just grew shrubbery, for example, can now have a year-round crop.”

No one could have predicted that a food trend would prove instrumental to the revival of an abandoned industrial site. But the popularity of micro greens has had other far-reaching effects.

The Environmental Protection Agency made a promotional film on the possibilities of restoring old industrial sites, featuring the Church Street greenhouse as a model.

Producing food locally also provides obvious benefits for his company, the local economy and the environment, Mr. Wainer said. Producing foods formerly trucked into the region from the West Coast can provide opportunities for local growers.

“We’ve got four farms now, and I believe we have saved around 1,000 acres of land by having these other farmers plant for us.”

Also on the Web
EPA’s fact sheet:
Wainer profile:

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