clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Urban Farms Are Changing the Way We Eat

Are rooftop greenhouses the next big thing in local produce?

Gotham Greens/Facebook

"These are spoiled plants," says Gotham Greens co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri, gesturing toward seemingly endless rows of perfectly symmetrical leaves —€” butter lettuce, arugula, basil —€” in vibrant, uniform shades of green.

His point is obvious inside Gotham Greens' 20,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse facility in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where red leaf goes from seed to sprout to harvest in tech-savvy, climate-controlled conditions —€” no wind, rain, or temperature fluctuations to be dealt with —€” and is then sold just steps below, on shelves at Whole Foods, and nearby to diners at restaurants like Franny's and Gramercy Tavern. It's just a small peek at a new approach to supplying supermarkets, restaurants, and chefs with the locally-grown produce consumers are increasingly demanding.

Is arugula that’s grown in a Chicago greenhouse owned by a multi-million-dollar NYC company really "local"?

Gotham Greens has raised about $30 million to date and now has four greenhouse farms in New York City and Chicago that total 170,000 square feet, and it's set to break ground in two more cities this year. It's not the only greenhouse group with expansion plans in the works. BrightFarms, which builds greenhouses just outside of city centers, started with a 56,000-square-foot greenhouse in Bucks County, PA; in February, it opened a 140,000-square-foot facility just outside Washington, DC, and will debut a 160,000-square-foot Chicago greenhouse this summer. The latter two will each produce about one million pounds of produce annually, and BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot says that over the next three years, he expects to build 15 more in additional cities across the Northeast and Midwest.

"Our mission is to improve the health of Americans and the health of the environment by transforming the produce supply chain," Lightfoot says of his company, which has raised more than $40 million in funding and has more than $100 million in contracted commitments with supermarkets.

While the idea of local lettuce in many diners' minds may conjure images of rolling fields of green tended by generations of a farm family, these greenhouse farms are pitching their model as a more sustainable alternative to big-box organic agriculture brands like Organic Valley, since it allows for year-round production with minimal transportation. But some are asking the question: Is arugula that's grown in a greenhouse in Chicago but owned by a multi-million-dollar company based in New York City really "local"?

Courtesy Gotham Greens/Facebook

To be clear, greenhouse farming is nothing new. The growing method is especially popular in Canada because of its cold climate that makes outdoor farming difficult, but most in the past have fallen into two camps: very small (local farmers tending to herbs and tomatoes) or massive industrial operations that ship the produce all over the world.

Gotham Greens and BrightFarms take components of each to create a new model, one that involves scale and volume but that places each hydroponic, heated growing facility in or next to a city, where it is operated by and serves the local community. Both are focused on cities in the Northeast and Midwest, where the produce they grow — mainly leafy greens —€” is scarce during colder months and primarily shipped from the West Coast.

These new models place hydroponic, heated growing facilities in or next to a city, where they’re operated by the local community.

There are others, too. Backyard Farms applies a similar model to tomatoes in Maine; FarmedHere does it for microgreens and basil in Chicago; and Newark, NJ-based AeroFarms just raised $20 million to expand its aeroponic vertical farms (which use different technology but still apply commercial scale to growing local produce indoors).

And demand for locally-grown produce is growing (like weeds). A January 2015 USDA report about trends in local and regional food systems found that the number of farms with direct-to-consumer sales (indicating a local model) increased by 17 percent between 2002 and 2007 and another 5.5 percent between 2007 and 2012. Meanwhile, a 2015 grocery shopper trends survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute found that 29 percent of shoppers nationwide want retailers to prioritize supporting the local food economy. Given that fact, Lightfoot says BrightFarms is filling in a major gap.

"There's a great supply chain of local food throughout the country —€” generally you find it through CSAs, farmers markets. Those farmers often don't meet food safety requirements, volume, and consistency standards for supermarkets," he says. "Supermarkets see this massive demand trend, but they're left out in the cold."

Courtesy AeroFarms

Courtesy AeroFarms

In each of its markets, BrightFarms has partnered with major chains, like Giant and Acme, and the produce often hits shelves within 24 hours of being picked, a fact that means it's almost guaranteed to be longer-lasting than other greens. "I want to help people eat healthier food, and making it flavorful and delicious is a big part of that," Lightfoot says.

Gotham Greens is also aligned with the biggest supermarkets, like Whole Foods, ShopRite, and Key Food, but has partnered with restaurants in a much bigger way, too. Its greens are on the menu at Brooklyn pizza hotspot Franny's and in office worker's salads via seasonal partnerships with lunch chain Just Salad and David Chang's beloved delivery service Maple. They're also on plates at many of the best restaurants in Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), like Michael Anthony's Gramercy Tavern and Untitled.

Puri says that very soon after Gotham's first greenhouse was up and running in Greenpoint, the restaurant community responded with enthusiasm. "I think what people were responding to was the quality and [otherwise] not having a reliable source of fresh produce year-round," he says.

"Are they really filling a niche or are they competing? Are local farmers really unable to supply these markets?"

But what about the allure of a funky heirloom tomato with its one-of-a-kind terroir and patterning, the likes of which will never be bitten into again? While chefs won't get vegetables with that kind of cultural cache, many swear by the greens. "It's the best basil we've ever had, and they're able to produce it for us year-round," says John Karangis, the executive chef at Union Square Events, USHG's catering and partnership business. Karangis says Union Square Events purchased 11,000 pounds of produce from Gotham Greens between March 2015 and March 2016, and that while they still buy fresh basil from local farmers when it's available, having access to Gotham Greens has been a game-changer.

Karangis definitely feels that the concept is in line with the local food movement, too. "The fact that they're local is definitely very important to us, and their overall integrity and family values... it's all very much in line with what we do and how we operate," he says.

Which is where some foodies and food movement activists may protest. When it comes to defining local, "it generally has to do with distance," explains Gail Feenstra, the deputy director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SAREP) at UC Davis. But there are other considerations, namely who controls the resources and whether or not they're using those larger resources (which may not all be local) to compete with small farmers. "I guess my question is, 'Are they really filling a niche or are they competing? Are local farmers really unable to supply these markets?'"

Puri says the answer is clear (although it's a fact impossible to verify). "All of our produce here [in Gowanus] is grown by New Yorkers for New Yorkers. Chicago's is grown by Chicagoans for Chicagoans," he says. And Lightfoot agrees. "We're never competing with farmers markets. I'm a farmers market consumer and that would upset me," he promises.

Who they are competing with, they say, are brands that grow greens in California and other far-flung warm climates year-round and then ship the produce to the Northeast and Midwest.

A dish at Untitled. Photo: Daniel Krieger/Eater NY

A dish at Untitled. Photo: Daniel Krieger/Eater NY

Which points to the brands' other selling point: sustainability. Both Gotham Greens and BrightFarms boast a long list of environmental benefits that accompany their decentralized methods of local greenhouse growing. Saving on shipping fuel is a huge one, followed by water use. The recirculating hydroponic growing system allows both to use significantly less water than traditional farms, with no agricultural runoff. They grow without pesticides and use land in an incredibly efficient way. Gotham Greens says its greenhouses yield about 20-30 times more produce per acre than field farming —€” and they're even on rooftops, on land already being used for something else.

Energy, of course, seems like it would be an issue, considering the high-tech climate control and irrigation systems. Feenstra pointed to a UC Davis White Paper from 2008 which stated that "production of produce in fossil fuel-heated greenhouses typically adds substantially to the life cycle energy use and GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions of food items compared to the equivalent field-grown crops." Gotham Greens accounts for this by using solar panels for a portion of its energy and then purchasing renewable energy through the utility company to offset the balance. Lightfoot says BrightFarms purchases renewable (wind) energy to power its Pennsylvania greenhouse and that he's looking into similar deals for the other farms, including a way to capture waste heat from an adjacent ethanol facility in Chicago.

"This is not by any means the future of farming, the only way to farm, or the best way to farm."

In order to get an exact look at the big picture, it would be useful for an independent study of the "Life Cycle Energy Use" of this kind of greenhouse operation, Feenstra says, which takes into account all of the factors that contribute to environmental impact.

But while standing in a greenhouse watching happy twenty-somethings harvest perfect, crunchy lettuce in a neighborhood formerly known for industrial waste, Puri and Lightfoot's visions appear clear. "We're just looking to create a more robust local and regional foodshed, and I think we're just one piece of the puzzle," Puri says. "This is not by any means the future of farming, the only way to farm, or the best way to farm. I think to have a more sustainable food system you need to have a lot of different solutions, and this is one."

Lisa Elaine Held is a journalist based in New York City.
Editor: Erin DeJesus