Each year at The New York Produce Show and Conference, we run a series of industry tours. We have already profiled several for this year’s conference:
This year the highlight is the cutting-edge Gotham Greens facility sitting atop the Whole Foods Store in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Here is how Gotham Greens describes the site:
Gotham Greens’ second greenhouse facility was built in 2013 in Gowanus, Brooklyn, on the roof of Whole Foods Market’s first ever Brooklyn store. The rooftop greenhouse, designed, built, owned and operated by Gotham Greens, measures over 20,000 sq. ft., and will grow over 200 tons of fresh leafy greens and tomatoes each year. Recirculating irrigation systems capture water for re-use and all products are free of any harmful chemical pesticides, insecticides or herbicides.
This groundbreaking project represents the first commercial scale greenhouse farm integrated into a supermarket. Gotham Greens was approached by Whole Foods Market based on its experience and expertise in urban agriculture as well as its dedication to growing the highest quality produce with strong commitment to sustainable agriculture. The partnership with Whole Foods Market was a perfect match for Gotham Greens based on the retailers’ unparalleled leadership and commitment to promoting local, healthy and sustainably produced food.
Perhaps the most ecologically advanced supermarket in the country, the innovative project also features a 157kW Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant and a 325kW solar PV system located in the parking lot. Amongst other features, both the greenhouse and supermarket implement a high efficiency, zero ozone depletion, HFC-free commercial refrigeration system representing the first HFC-free supermarket store in the United States.
Rainwater collection is used for on site irrigation and sink/drain water from the building is treated and reused for toilet flushing. Gotham Greens and Whole Foods Market are thrilled with the project’s capacity to exhibit and educate the public regarding the latest technologies in local food production, sustainable energy, water conservation and re-use.
And Bloomberg did a short video describing the project further:
It is a fascinating project and we asked Pundit Contributing Editor Mark Hamstra to find out more:
Cofounder and CEO
Gotham Greens LLC
Brooklyn, New York
Q: What were the biggest challenges to opening a rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn?
A: In 2011, Gotham Greens built the first commercial-scale rooftop greenhouse in the United States. Being a pioneer in this type of facility development meant that there was little precedent and no examples to follow. Many of the design and logistical challenges stem from being several stories up in the air. Architecture, engineering, permitting and construction are unique challenges that greenhouse growers typically aren’t accustomed to.
Q: How did you come to partner with Whole Foods Market on this project?
A: Whole Foods Market has been a valued customer of Gotham Greens since we launched in 2011. WFM was an early supporter of our mission and recognized the positive impact we could make in supplying premium-quality produce, consistently and reliably year-round. In addition, our companies share many of the same values. WFM has shown tremendous leadership in advancing local and sustainable agriculture and is an incredible partner.
Early in our business relationship, we had exchanged notes about the possibility of integrating a greenhouse into one of their stores. Once WFM developed its plan for its flagship Brooklyn store that included an urban farming component, they selected Gotham Greens as its greenhouse partner, based on our leadership and experience in the urban agriculture industry. They recognized our ability to successfully execute urban agriculture projects and grow premium quality produce. Being a local New York, and specifically Brooklyn-based, company was also added attraction.
Q: How is the business relationship with Whole Foods structured?
A: Gotham Greens has been a supplier to WFM in the New York area since 2011. At the flagship Brooklyn store, Gotham Greens owns and operates the rooftop greenhouse. WFM is the landlord, and Gotham Greens is the rooftop tenant. But our relationship goes beyond the traditional landlord-tenant relationship. We have a unique supplier agreement and strong mission-and-values-aligned relationship with the common goal of promoting local and sustainable agriculture.
Q: What are you growing there, and how is that different from your other facilities? Is any of it organic?
A: At our second greenhouse located at WFM Brooklyn, we grow a variety of leafy greens, lettuce, herbs and tomatoes. We grow exclusively using hydroponic techniques, so obtaining USDA organic certification is a challenge since that certification is really geared toward soil health and soil-based farming.
Our seeds are all organic and non-GMO. Most importantly all of our produce is pesticide-free. I think a prevailing misconception amongst many consumers is that certified organic-produce means that pesticides were not used. That is certainly not the case.
Q: What are some of the biggest lessons learned so far that you could apply in your future expansion?
A: One of our abiding corporate philosophies is to learn from experiences and to continually strive for improvement. We’ve become better at assessing opportunities, designing and building our greenhouses and improving our operating procedures and infrastructure.
Q: What are your plans for growth? Will there be more rooftop gardens?
A: Gotham Greens currently operates over 35,000 square feet of greenhouse and grows over 300 tons of fresh, salad greens and herbs annually for the NYC market. We’re continuing to expand, and our third and fourth greenhouse farms will open in 2015 in Queens, NY, and Chicago measuring 60,000 square feet and 75,000 square feet, respectively. Gotham Greens is working on several other urban agriculture projects with the goal of advancing our company and local, sustainable agriculture.
Q: What are some of the barriers to overcome in urban farming?
A: Cities lack arable land or fertile soil, but do contain an abundance of unused rooftop space. We recognized this as a major opportunity and developed a plan for rooftop-integrated greenhouses. Many of the design and logistical challenges stem from being several stories up in the air. Architecture, engineering, and permitting are unique challenges that greenhouse growers typically aren’t accustomed to.
Despite being located in the urban environment, we still face many common agricultural pests found in rural greenhouse locations. Our integrated pest management program and use of beneficial insects allow us to maintain pesticide-free products. The regulatory environment and high capital costs are also challenges to overcome.
Q: What do you think are the factors driving its growth?
A: The growth in urban agriculture is connected to overall trends in the food industry. Consumers increasingly care about how and where their food is produced. They are demanding more integrity and transparency in food production. Urban farming is an extension of that. It allows urban consumers to get a little closer to the food they eat and connect with in ways that were not of as much interest or even possible in the past. Urban farming, whether community-oriented or commercially-focused, has great potential and benefits to cities and their people.
Q: What are some of the coolest things people on the tour should look for at the facility?
A: At Gotham Greens, we pride ourselves on the quality of our produce. There are some neat technologies also on display at our greenhouses, but the main attraction is the produce.
The issues specifically surrounding urban agriculture and urban greenhouses are many. On the one hand, the idea of using urban rooftops in a highly productive way is seductive. Local produce is all the rage from a marketing perspective, and the idea that things can be produced near the consumer holds out the promise of things being done with lower carbon footprints.
Of course, it is early days, and what this industry will become is up for discussion. Some issues:
1) Food Safety
Most large retailers today won’t buy leafy greens without third-party certifications… yet they make exceptions for some local product, typically including urban agriculture operations. Does this make sense? Costco, for example, requires various audits :
The greenhouse audit is usually performed one time each year or during the growing season. The greenhouse audit is divided into sections that correspond to areas of potential contamination risk in the greenhouse operation. These areas include traceability, ground history, adjacent land, pest and foreign material controls, growing media, fertilizer/crop nutrition, irrigation/water use, plant protection, employee hygiene and food security.
A harvest crew audit will be performed at the same time as the greenhouse audit module in order to assess areas of potential contamination risk in the harvesting operation. A greenhouse is defined as a building constructed of glass or plastic, for the cultivation of plants under controlled environmental conditions.
Do relatively small urban greenhouses have the scale to afford and manage these types of requirements? Should they be exempted?
Many of these operations promise to be pesticide-free, use organic supplies, etc., and doubtless many producers are highly reputable. But some producers will not be. Many retailers will monitor thoroughly; others will not. Should such product be Certified Organic? Should there be a new standard created for pesticide-free hydroponic production?
Traditionally, energy is the Achilles’ heal of these operations. Rooftop farms can compensate for this cost as they reduce the loss of heat that would normally take place through a rooftop. However, construction costs on a rooftop are typically higher than on the ground. Many of these projects have received grant money and subsidized loans. Whether they can actually be financially viable, without subsidies, is unclear.
What is clear, though, is that this particular concept of putting a greenhouse on top of a supermarket is a kind of hyper-local marketing that provides a kind of halo of freshness over the whole store. That value may yet overcome any challenges.
Come and see this unique facility as well as some interesting Brooklyn retailing on the tour at The New York Produce Show and Conference. For information, just let us know your interest here.
If you want one of the other tours – Hunts Point, Philly market, Manhattan retail or New Jersey retail, just let us know here.
You can register for the entire New York Produce Show and Conference right here.
We can still help you if you need hotel rooms. Just let us know here.
We have one single booth left to sell on the floor; make it yours by letting us know your interest here.