BrightFarms LLC wants you to forget a 100-mile radius as the definition of what constitutes locally sourced food. A Manhattan firm that specializes in hydroponic greenhouses, the company is suggesting that in the not-so-distant future your kale could come from as close as the greenhouse on top of your local supermarket. While New York already has its fair share of rooftop farms and urban agriculture experiments, BrightFarms wants to design, finance, build and operate produce production centers on top of urban grocery retailers.
Launched in January 2011, BrightFarms’s vision is to have those businesses cultivate on rooftops an assortment of leafy greens, salad varieties, fresh herbs and vine crops such as tomatoes, cucumber and squash both for “taste and nutritional value,” says Benjamin Linsley, a co-founder and the vice president of business development and public affairs. The crops will be grown in year-round greenhouses by hydroponic methods, wherein plants are grown without soil suspended in buckets and nourished by a nutrient-rich solution. The greens are plucked only when ready, delivered straight to supermarket shelves downstairs, explains Linsley, making them as as fresh as the vegetables you obtain at the farmers’ market.
“Most of the tomatoes you get in the supermarket are grown in large industrial greenhouses,” says Linsley, and “are grown specifically to be very tough in order to withstand the long trucking journey” from far-flung farms. This leaves the consumer with a perfectly sized fruit, he adds, that may “last a long time in your refrigerator, but doesn’t taste very good.”
With on-site greenhouses, supermarkets no longer have to pay for shipping and the product shelf life is extended for perishable items, because the lettuce and mustard greens will go straight onto the shelves instead of having to travel 1500 miles for the first five to nine days of their lives. Linsley also insists that retailers will reduce waste due to rotten food and see “their overall profit margins go up” as customers buy more fresh quality greens.
The greenhouses BrightFarms builds, he adds, are sustainable and environmentally friendly. The hydroponic techniques used require 10 times less water than traditional field agriculture, and solar panels are used to generate heat. A typical 1-acre greenhouse, estimates BrightFarms, can grow around 300, 000 to 500,000 pounds of produce a year, depending on the size of the roof and the store, and can generate $1 million to $1.5 million in revenue. Plus, as the vegetables won’t have to be transported, it will lesson carbon dioxide emissions from trucks, and retailers also won’t be at they mercy of fluctuating fuel prices adding to the wholesale cost of their products.
BrightFarms is the result of a merger this year between Better Food Solutions and BrightFarms System, an engineering consultancy for rooftop farming that also partnered with New York Sun Works, a non-profit that has built a variety of sustainable urban greenhouses around the city. Their past projects include The Science Barge, a 1,300 square foot greenhouse boat now docked in Yonkers, an educational farm called The Sun Works Center at the Manhattan School For Children and a small-scale demonstration greenhouse at the Whole Foods Market in Millburn, New Jersey.
In January, Paul Lightfoot joined the company as CEO and heralded its transition from a consultancy to an operations business focused “primarily on the supermarket sector, and their produce needs,” says Linsley. Supermarkets will only be required to sign a ten-year contract to buy all the veggies produced. BrightFarms takes care of the labor and expenses associated with running the hydroponic garden year round and grow whatever the stores want to stock. “We are able to grow any heirloom vegetable that supermarket clients ask us to,” adds Linsley.
Hopefully, that’s exactly what they will soon be doing: The company is currently in talks with a couple of regional chains around the east coast and the Midwest, and is optimistic that they will open three greenhouses at some stage by early 2012.