Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood will soon be home to a 100,000 square foot, multi-acre rooftop farm that will produce a million pounds of produce per year – enough to feed 5,000 people – without using any dirt. The farm will be built by BrightFarms, a new company with a unique business model that finances, builds, and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms for supermarkets and other retailers who purchase the produce.
The Brooklyn farm will be located on top of an eight-story, 1.1 million square foot building that was built in 1916 as a Navy warehouse and is now part of the city’s plans to redevelop the Brooklyn industrial waterfront. Construction is slated to start in the fall with the first harvest of tomatoes, lettuces and herbs expected next spring. Company officials say that once the farm is built, it will be the largest of its kind in the world.
In an interview with the New York Times, BrightFarms’ CEO Paul Lightfoot said that the company was in talks with nearby supermarkets to potentially commit to purchasing the produce from the farm. “Brooklyn was an agricultural powerhouse in the 19th century, and it has now become a local food scene second to none,” said Paul Lightfoot, the chief executive of Bright Farms. “We’re bringing a business model where food is grown and sold right in the community.”
In December of 2011, BrightFarms announced the completion of a $4.3 million Series A equity financing round. So far, 10 supermarket chains have signed up to work with the company including five of the top 50 national chains. The company owns and operates one greenhouse in Long Island for the supermarket chain Best Yet Market, and plans to open three more this year in other areas of the country.
The greenhouses generally cost between $1.5 and $2 million each to build, but the supermarkets don’t pay any of that cost. Instead, they enter into long term agreements to purchase the produce, which they can buy at a price that is comparable to or even cheaper than what they currently pay. Even if the produce costs the supermarkets the same price, there are several other advantages to buying BrightFarms’ locally produced, hydroponically grown products.
This new model effectively shortens the produce supply chain, providing supermarkets with safer, higher quality, and more environmentally friendly produce. Buying food that is produced nearby saves time and reduces the cost, risk and environmental impact associated with transporting food over long distances. The longer shelf life of the food also results in less shrink, which will produce higher gross margins for the retailer.
According to BrightFarms, hydroponic food production uses ten to twenty times less land and ten times less water than conventional agriculture. Using integrated pest management eliminates the use of pesticides and prevents fertilizer runoff. Rooftop greenhouses also have the same building energy saving benefits as green roofs. The long-term fixed contracts that retailers enter into insulate them from volatile prices, rising energy costs, and the potential for supply shortfalls.
According to Forbes, this model has the potential to transform the supermarket as we know it. If it means juicy red tomatoes year round instead of those mealy white ones, I would have to agree.
Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on Twitter @karameredith.