BrightFarms has designed and built hydroponic greenhouses to grow fruits and vegetables in urban environments for the last eight years. Its mission has been to do this with a smaller carbon footprint by reducing energy use, both in the growing process and in the transportation required to bring produce to consumers.
Zak Adams, the former director of engineering at BrightFarms who started with the company and oversaw development of most of its greenhouses, says the concept involves marrying greenhouses with environmental technologies like rainwater capture and renewable energy production. These controlled-environment agriculture facilities can produce 10 times the amount of food in a given area, compared to conventional soil agriculture.
Based in Manhattan, N.Y., BrightFarms designs, finances, builds and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms using a business model based on entering into a long-term produce purchase agreement with a retailer. It typically enters into 10-year purchase agreements with grocery companies, requiring them to purchase all the output at fixed prices.
Overlooked Urban Spaces Help BrightFarms Bring Local Produce To Metropolitan Areas
While much of BrightFarms’ work has focused on New York City and surrounding urban areas, its trying to spread the model on a global scale to potentially any semi-urban to urban area underserved by the conventional food system and with a need for fresh local produce. In doing this, it has gone through an evolutionary process. The company started by putting small greenhouses on rooftops of schools, largely to educate youngsters about agriculture and the benefits of hydroponic greenhouses. Then it transitioned to putting larger ones on the roofs of supermarkets. Now it finds itself building even larger units on the ground in urban infill spaces.
Epitomizing this trend, BrightFarms recently announced that it is building a 120,000-square-foot greenhouse in Washington, D.C., under an agreement with the Giant Food supermarket chain. Toby Tiktinsky, BrightFarms’ business development director, says the company found a site in D.C. that had experienced illegal dumping.
“Those are the types of sites we like because they’re providing investments in underserved areas, and they provide jobs for the local community. We can get produce out to communities that otherwise wouldn’t have access to it, and we can easily serve a network of stores in the surrounding region.”
BrightFarms plans to have the site operational by the end of 2014.
“We have a two-fold mission, to improve the environmental impact of the food supply chain and to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Tiktinsky says. “We do that by building greenhouses in markets where the produce will be consumed, so we’re cutting out cross-country transportation of highly perishable produce items and producing a fresher and longer-lasting product that consumers can get excited about. People love it. Customers like the accountability of local produce.”
BrightFarms’ greenhouses produce lettuce and other salad greens; leafy greens such as chard, kale, arugula and mustard greens, along with herbs, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Typically, though, it leans toward highly perishable fruits or vegetables and ones that don’t transport well, as these yield higher prices and therefore justify the investment in the technology.
BrightFarms Promotes Sustainable Urban Agriculture With Education
Much of the inspiration for BrightFarms came from founder Ted Caplow, viewed in the industry as an urban farming visionary and pioneer in rooftop sustainable greenhouse development. Born in New York City, Caplow has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Columbia.
In 2006, Caplow founded nonprofit New York Sun Works (NYSW) to promote the use of hydroponic greenhouses for sustainable urban agriculture. Its mission was to design and promote ecologically responsible systems to produce energy, water and food in the urban environment.
In 2007, NYSW launched the renowned Science Barge, a prototype urban farm. Constructed on a steel deck barge and moored on the Hudson River in midtown Manhattan, it serves as a public demonstration of renewable energy supporting sustainable food production. Its greenhouse electrical systems are powered by solar, wind and biodiesel. The Science Barge also acts as an environmental education facility for students of all ages.
In 2008, Caplow founded BrightFarm Systems, a consulting firm providing technical services in support of rooftop greenhouses and building integrated agriculture. Then, in January 2011, BrightFarms resulted from the merger of Better Food Solutions and BrightFarm Systems. Caplow co-founded BrightFarms with Paul Lightfoot, who now serves as CEO. Caplow serves as president of the board of directors and as a shareholder and an investor, all with the role of oversight and strategic guidance.
The initial mission of BrightFarms is to establish sustainable urban agriculture and educate people on it, which explains why they started with schools. The company now focuses mainly on commercial retail clients that can handle the high volumes of produce that come out of its greenhouses, including grocery stores and produce distributors.
As an example, BrightFarms signed the grocery industry’s first long-term produce purchase agreement (PPA) with McCaffrey’s Market, under which it will deliver year-round local produce to McCaffrey’s, an independent grocer with stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Located in Yardley, Pa., the 50,000-square-foot greenhouse grows about 500,000 pounds of produce a year.
BrightFarms also designed and installed a demonstration-scale urban greenhouse for a new Whole Foods Market store in Millburn, N.J. This was designed to produce herbs for use in Whole Foods’ prepared food services, as well as for general sale, and involved lines of vertical growing towers deployed along the window frontage to make the best use of available light.
Beyond schools and grocery stores, BrightFarms has also ventured into residences. It implemented a system in a building in the Bronx called the Forest Houses, with the agreement that people who live in the building get a certain percentage of the produce.
Ground Installations Make Sense From A Logistics Point Of View
So why is BrightFarms transitioning from rooftop to ground installations?
“We learned that finding rooftops that could support the scale of operation we were planning was difficult and expensive,” Tiktinsky says. “We try to find urban sites that are underutilized and don’t compete with other land values like commercial buildings. Rooftop greenhouses have to serve other stores in addition to the one underneath the greenhouse. From a logistics point of view, it makes sense to have a centrally located greenhouse that serves a network of stores and not have it on a rooftop.”
As another factor in the equation, Tiktinsky says there are economies of scale to building the greenhouse. You only need one tech house, one boiler system and one chiller system. You can take advantage of that by building larger and larger greenhouses. In other words, if you have the infrastructure there, you might as well use its full capacity.
Whether on a roof or the ground, hydroponic greenhouses use standard greenhouse technology with occasional modifications. For rooftop applications, BrightFarms sometimes has to add dunnage beams to support point loads such as water tanks that sit between main structural beams. It sometimes has to transition a building’s membrane roof to the greenhouse to maintain watertightness. Computerized control systems maintain optimum growing temperatures by controlling shades, vent openings, blowers and heating and cooling units.
As Adams says, the greenhouses typically have a rainwater catchment system, which gathers most of the water for growing operations in gutters along the lower edges of the roof, like on a house. From there it flows to two large HDPE tanks connected to act as one tank.
In reflecting on the bright future of hydroponic greenhouses for agriculture, Caplow says, “I think the potential is vast. Cities and semi-urban areas cover an increasing fraction of the landscape worldwide, and cities are in a constant search for more sustainable, pleasant, green and people-friendly structures. Urban farms fit the bill.”