Are Rooftop Farms Coming to a Grocery Store Near You?

The model makes perfect sense: Grow it, then sell it on-site.

cherry tomatoes on the vine
Tomatoes—straight from the roof to your shopping cart. (Photo: Francesco Ruggeri/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Brooklyn’s been rocking it as a force in the food world for some time now, but a new idea has sprouted among the hipster restaurants and well-stocked co-ops: rooftop farms. No, we’re not talking about dinky little kitchen gardens. This movement is massive, and it might well be coming to a supermarket near you.

New York-based startup BrightFarms announced they’re building the largest rooftop farm in the world atop the Liberty View Industrial Plaza in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. The 100,000 square feet of rooftop space will be home to a greenhouse filled with hydroponic crops of lettuce, herbs, tomatoes and more. The project is expected to produce up to one million pounds of local produce each year; create up to 25 local jobs; and fits in with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s revitalization plan for this part of the industrial waterfront.

At a recent TEDxManhattan event, BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot says he was compelled to develop an alternative supply chain for produce.

“Nearly 100 percent of supermarket lettuces come from just two places: near Salinas, California in the summer, and Yuma, Arizona in the winter. They travel 3,000 miles to reach the local grocery store here. It’s no surprise lettuce is prone to rotting before it’s purchased, or right when people bring it home, and that causes huge losses for supermarkets,” he says in the speech.

Lightfoot believes moving it faster or better through that supply chain isn’t going to cut it. What’s needed is the revolutionary idea of growing and selling food within the same community—eliminating the need for cross-country transportation and enormous swaths of farmland. To do this, BrightFarms plans on partnering with grocery stores within the communities they serve.

While the idea of acres of freshly grown produce in urban-dense Brooklyn is tantalizing, don’t let your mouths water for items like apples, peaches, carrots or potatoes. They can’t be grown hydroponically. And there’s still the question of where the abundance of produce from this specific project will ultimately be sold.

“We don’t know yet. We’re talking with several grocery stores, but haven’t selected that partner yet,” Lightfoot tells TakePart. Whoever it is, they need to be willing to sell the produce locally in Brooklyn, or maybe across the river into Manhattan. Boston? Get your own.

While the spotlight is on this project for its sheer size and location, other entrepreneurs are also exploring ways of eliminating the transportation component.

San Diego-based startup Home Town Farms is launching a slightly different model. Like BrightFarms, they’ll grow within greenhouses, but Home Town Farms will use high-efficiency systems (think soil without the rocks), rather than traditional hydroponic systems to grow produce. Their plan is to open adjoining retail shops to sell directly to the public. The first store is expected to open in October in Encinitas, California.

“We’re choosing high-traffic locations in urban space,” says CEO Dan Gibbs. “Our store is attached to the greenhouse. The back of the store will have windows so you can see the food being grown.”

Sounds pretty sci-fi to us, but the idea of growing more food in urban communities is something we think is promising.

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