By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — In a city with no shortage of concrete and asphalt looms a giant symbol of sustainability.
The massive Durfee Union Mills complex in the heart of downtown is home to dozens of locally owned businesses, including a travel agency, an Internet service company and a fleece maker. That’s the intent of the mill’s owner, Greg Squillante, who wants to foster local businesses rather than continue the spread of national retailers.
Squillante, in fact, owns 30 small businesses — all run by family members — in the historic complex. Each focuses on health and fitness, including a yoga studio and a tea company.
Another Squillante-owned business, S&S's Urban Acres, is an indoor hydroponics farm, started two years ago by Squillante’s son Brad Dean.
The farm grows a dozen varieties of herbs and three types of lettuce for nearby grocery stores and restaurants, including the Whole Foods Market University Heights store in Providence. Urban Acres harvests 450 heads of lettuce and 450 packets of herbs weekly.
A couple of illnesses within the extended family, Dean said, prompted a push for a healthier lifestyle, better food and an improved business acumen. “The more we looked at what we are eating, the more we saw it was bad for us,” Dean said.
All of Urban Acres' plants are grown organically. Plant-based pesticides such as neem oil and rosemary extract replace chemical pesticides.
The indoor farm began growing tomatoes and other vegetables, and even offered a CSA. Demand from wholesalers for lettuce and herbs were the most consistent sellers, and eventually became the only crops. The vegetables will return next year after a new greenhouse is built in Westport, Mass.
The growing is done with hydroponics, meaning a constant stream of water is pumped through a system of trays that feed rows of roots dangling below the plants. The water returns to a reservoir, where it builds nutrients and circulates to other plants. Hydroponics, Dean said, uses about 10 percent of the water needed for outdoor crops.
To improve efficiency, the electricity for pumps and growing lights is offset by two photovoltaic solar arrays atop the mill.
Dean, who has a background in business, learned the trade through trial and error. “They’re plants. They tell you when something is wrong and needs attention,” he said.
A few hundred thousand dollars has been spent on the venture and Dean doesn’t expect to see the business profitable anytime soon, if ever. The business, which was built without public loans or grants, is simply meeting a demand for healthy products, especially those that can grow locally and year-round, Dean said.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, he said, supply chains for produce were knocked out and Dean received calls from across the region for his produce. He couldn’t provide enough lettuce and herbs, but the natural disaster showed the necessity for food that is resilient to extreme weather. “It’s sunny 365 in here,” he said.
As is the case with the many of the Squillante-run ventures in the mill, profitability isn’t the main goal. The businesses are managed smartly, but with an imperative on keeping the community vibrant.
“It’s healthy. It’s local. And it creates jobs," Dean said.