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Harry Stevens headshot

Whole Foods to Grow Produce on Roof of New Brooklyn Store

By Harry Stevens

Whole Foods Market will build a greenhouse farm on the roof of its forthcoming store in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Scheduled to open this fall, the greenhouse will be the first commercial scale farm of its kind integrated within a retail grocery space.

Gotham Greens, a Brooklyn-based urban agriculture company that grows food for local restaurants and retailers, will run the 20,000-square-foot rooftop facility, which will grow pesticide- and GMO-free produce year round for the store in Gowanus and other Whole Foods stores throughout the city.

“Gotham Greens has been a valued local supplier of high quality, flavorful and fresh produce to Whole Foods Market since early 2011, making this greenhouse project a natural and extremely exciting next step in our relationship,” said Christina Minardi, president of Whole Foods Market’s northeast regional operations.

“We’re particularly excited to partner with a local organization with roots right here in Brooklyn and a mission in line with our own, in that we both care deeply about providing local, fresh and sustainably-produced food," she added.

The greenhouse design includes irrigation systems that use up to 20 times less water than conventional farming. The farm will also sport enhanced glazing materials and electrical equipment to reduce overall energy demand.

Energy use will be further limited due to the farm's proximity to the Whole Foods stores throughout the city, virtually eliminating transportation costs when compared with more traditional agricultural supply chains that sometimes span the globe.

“Talk about local!" said Viraj Puri, a serial "ecopreneur" who co-founded Gotham Greens in 2008 after working at New York Sun Works, an environmental engineering firm.  "This project takes the discussion from food miles to food footsteps."

The short distance between farm and store will also ensure product freshness and quality.

“Our greenhouse will provide Whole Foods Market shoppers with access to the freshest, most delicious leafy greens, herbs and tomatoes year-round that will be grown right above the store’s produce department," said Puri. "We’re thrilled with this partnership and to be part of the growing national movement of farmers and food producers committed to providing consumers with high quality, responsibly-produced food.”

While urban farming is on the upswing across the country, local agriculture is often stymied by the relatively high value of city land. Whole Foods spokesman Michael Sinatra said in an telephone interview with TriplePundit that the rooftop greenhouse provides a workaround to the urban property value problem, taking advantage of an open space which, like nearly all the world’s other rooftops, usually lies fallow.

“City-wide [the roof] is probably the most underutilized part of the building,” said Sinatra. “It can be used as something more cost-effective for sure.”

The greenhouse will be fully operational by the time the new Whole Foods store opens in Gowanus in the fall. Whole Foods expects that the new store and greenhouse will create jobs and economic development opportunities in the Brooklyn area.

Despite these benefits, Adam Clark Estes of Vice expressed concern that the appearance of Whole Foods in Gowanus is a sign that the traditionally working class neighborhood is about to undergo a potentially painful process of gentrification.

"With the arrival of Whole Foods in what used to be a working class neighborhood comes the arrival of condos and yoga studios and all the other things that hipsters like," wrote Estes. "Most of the people that have lived nearby for the past few decades won't be able to afford the groceries, and as the neighborhood continues to change, they probably won't be able to afford rent either."

Sinatra said that, on the contrary, Gowanus residents are excited to finally have a grocery store in an area where fresh food is scarce.

“From what we've heard from people in the area, there's an incredible amount of excitement to be able to go somewhere close to home” without having to use public transportation, he said.

Ultimately, Whole Foods is coming to Gowanus whether the locals like it or not, and while Sinatra says there’s “no specific plan” to scale the rooftop greenhouse model, the company may decide to expand the concept in the future.

"We’re ready to get one under our belt and then explore other options," said Tristam Coffin, Whole Foods Market’s "Green Mission Specialist," in an interview with Fast Company. "There’s potential for growing this out in different parts of the country."

[Image credit: That Other Paper, Flickr]

Harry Stevens headshot

Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens

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