Partnership’s end won’t hinder food institute, college says

Saint Joseph's College will host an update on the planning for its Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation on Feb. 12 in the Alfond Hall auditorium. 

STANDISH — The recent decision to forgo a $750,000 corporate partnership will not hamper the development of a new local food systems institute at Saint Joseph’s College, according to a project leader.

Peter Nielsen said it was a “mutual decision” between the college and Florida-based Organic Nutrition Inc. not to pursue the previously announced partnership involving a planned hydroponic farm at the new Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation. Nielsen, entrepreneur-in-residence and executive director of mission-aligned business at Saint Joseph’s, said the decision was finalized in early January.

Hydroponic farming is the process of growing crops in a controlled environment with a liquid nutrient solution rather than soil.

Nielsen, who leads the business planning team for the hydroponic greenhouse, said the project is still slated to be the first completed phase of the new food institute. Completion is scheduled for late May 2019, but he said it’s possible that it could be completed by the end of this year.

He and his team are scheduled to provide an update on the institute and its business plan Feb. 12 at Saint Joseph’s Alfond Hall.

That team includes Dr. Mark Green, a science faculty member and director of hydroponic enterprises at the school; Stuart Leckie, senior director of sustainable enterprises; and three students who have jobs or internships as part of the project, seniors Elyse Caiazzo and Hayley Winslow and sophomore Nick Guidi.

The goal of the hydroponic farm is to “advance New England’s capacity to sustainably produce fresh, local food year-round through the development of hydroponic farming techniques and the education and training of the hydroponics workforce,” according to its mission statement.

When Saint Joseph’s announced plans for the food institute last September, it touted several funding sources, including a nearly $2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

In a September press release, the school also highlighted a $750,000 “award” from Organic Nutrition as part of matching funds.

The EDA is a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. An agency spokesperson said this week the dissolution of the partnership with Organic Nutrition does not affect the federal investment.

“EDA has been assured by St. Joseph College that all matching funds for the grant provided for the food systems innovation project have been secured and that the project will continue as planned,” said the spokesman. “EDA looks forward to seeing how this innovative, local-driven project will help spur new manufacturing ventures and training opportunities.”

Nielsen said there were “many, many variables” that went into the decision to call off the partnership with Organic Nutrition, but the company’s relationship with New Hampshire financial services firm Cate Street Capital had “zero to do with it.”

“There’s nothing there,” he said. “That isn’t why.”

Nielsen said the school was well aware Cate Street, which garnered negative attention for a failed attempt to revitalize the Great Northern Paper Co. in northern Maine, was going to be involved with Organic Nutrition in the hydroponic project at the institute.

Ultimately, Nielsen said, a factor in the decision not to pursue the partnership was a differing sense of scale for the project and a “different set of goals and outcomes.”

The school, Nielsen said, is looking to build an “education institution” while “Cate Street is looking at a hydroponic industry.”

“We just reached the conclusion that this probably wasn’t a good fit,” Nielsen said.

Cate Street spokeswoman Sarah Boone similarly said the goals of each party “were not as aligned” as originally thought, and the decision not to move forward with the partnership was “amicable and mutually agreed.”

Nielsen stressed that the local foods systems institute is “no short-term project” and that partnership agreements are often structured with funding over several years rather than one lump sum.

“There’s no individual loss of $750,000 happening here,” he said, while acknowledging that the school now has a higher fundraising goal.

Nielsen said he is confident that the school will be able to make up that difference moving forward.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Saint Joseph’s College will host an update on the planning for its Institute for Local Food Systems Innovation on Feb. 12 in the Alfond Hall auditorium.