According to the Agriculture Department, the average food item travels at least 1,500 miles before it hits supermarket shelves and studies have indicated transportation can account for up to half the price of a head of lettuce or a pound of tomatoes.
Hoping to minimize their carbon footprints and get the goods closer to customers in large metropolitan areas, some entrepreneurs are deploying innovative methods of production.
In the Big Apple, for example, two urban farmers are capitalizing on the wide open "plains" atop New York City skyscrapers and as producer Laurel Bower Burgmaier discovered last year, the unlikely agrarians are shouting their success from the rooftops.
Ben Flanner is head farmer and co-founder of Brooklyn Grange Farm, a 40,000 square foot, soil-based rooftop farm –that’s one acre --located above a former manufacturing plant in Long Island City. Developed in 2010, Brooklyn Grange is considered to be the largest rooftop farm in the world.
Ben Flanner, Brooklyn Grange Farm: “It just makes sense to do something practical on these rooftop spaces. We have all these empty roofs that have the sun bearing down on them all day long. It makes something with them that is productive.”
Flanner and his team, which includes four other co-founders and scores of volunteers, farm the roof about nine months out of the year. During the growing season, there are hundreds of thousands of plants on the roof. The crops are sold directly to the community at several weekly farm stands, as well as to local restaurants like Vesta located in Queens.
Giuseppe Falco, Vesta: “For someone who comes from the Midwest, it might be an everyday thing. But for someone who grows up in the five boroughs of New York City that is something you never see. The taste is on a level we wouldn’t appreciate. The supermarket greens or tomatoes don’t taste like what Ben Flanner grows.”
Giuseppe Falco co-owns Vesta and says having a relationship with Brooklyn Grange has allowed him to make local ingredients a mainstay on his menu.
Giuseppe Falco, Vesta: “We’re very flexible about the items we take from Brooklyn Grange. We’ll get a phone call once-a-week and they’ll be like, “this is what’s gonna happen on Tuesday or Wednesday.” We’ll cater our menu to that. We take what he gives us. Generally they will deliver to us and sometimes we’ll pick it up. The fun aspect is being able to ask for specific things. To tell the farmer, “Hey, I like this type of carrot. Can you grow it for me?”
In its first year of business, Brooklyn Grange sold 14,000 pounds of produce to local restaurants and farmers markets, and managed to cover its operating costs while making a small profit.
Ben Flanner, Brooklyn Grange Farm: “It’s not easy to put together a plan such as this. It takes a lot of dedication and time. You have to be in it 110 percent. But, it is possible. I think the model we use will evolve and improve. The biggest challenge is convincing a landlord that it’s worth the risk. It’s a big deal. The core components are like anything, having a great relationship and trust and finding the right people who are willing to take a little bit of a leap with you.”
Brooklyn Grange has a ten-year lease with Acumen Capital Partners. The crops are grown in roughly 1.2 million pounds of soil on top of more than 20,000 linear feet of green roofing material. The farm is financed through a combination of private funds, loans, and grassroots money raising events.
Ben Flanner, Brooklyn Grange Farm: “The community has been very supportive. I think a lot of people are excited to have food grown so close to their home, picked so close to the point in time when they eat it.”
Another New York-based company is also part of the rooftop farming revolution. Instead of using dirt, BrightFarms LLC grows its produce in a less traditional way using hydroponics, or the growing of plants without soil. Benjamin Linsley is the Vice President of Business Development and Public Affairs for BrightFarms.
Benjamin Linsley, BrightFarms: “BrightFarms is a design and engineering firm that focuses on one particular idea and that is rooftop, hydroponic greenhouses in urban areas…What we’re trying to do is bring food production much closer to urban consumers.”
In the fall of 2010, BrightFarms was commissioned to design an environmental education center and local food production facility on the roof of the Manhattan School for Children on the Upper West Side.
Benjamin Linsley, BrightFarms: “This particular facility is not designed for commercial use. It’s an education facility with hydroponic technology. The food will be used in the cafeteria for the students.”
Linsley says BrightFarms focuses on delivery of the best quality fruits and vegetables, grown with the smallest possible environmental impact. He claims hydroponic farms use 90 percent less water than traditional methods by capturing rainfall from the roof and re-circulating it.
Some greenhouses are heavy emitters of carbon dioxide gases because of the energy needed to heat in the winter. Linsley says BrightFarms is able to greatly reduce fossil fuel use by utilizing solar panels and ventilation systems.
Linsley also points out since soil is not used in hydroponic farming; the method is lightweight, making it ideal for a rooftop setting. And, he says some of BrightFarms climate-controlled greenhouses are capable of producing 250 tons of food per year.
Benjamin Linsley, BrightFarms: “In this part of the country, in order to grow year round you need a greenhouse. From a commercial perspective, there’s an advantage of being a farmer that can grow 365 days a year. Hydroponics technology offers favorable opportunities. It’s an extremely high yield form of agriculture. It’s water efficient. It produces a high quality vegetable. It’s very efficient on resources. So from a commercial farming perspective, you can grow year round with the highest yields, with the need to use very few resources.”
While using different methods, both BrightFarms and Brooklyn Grange would agree growing food in the city is good for the environment and good for people. Studies suggest there could be enough rooftop space in New York City to grow all of the fresh vegetables needed for the nearly 19 million residents.
Giuseppe Falco, Vesta: “I think sometimes in life we get away from things that come natural. I grew up in a European household where it was natural to walk down the street to pick up vegetables and meat. I think we’ve gotten away from that in the past 20 to 30 years and I think we are realizing that’s the way things should be. You should have some sort of relationship with the person growing something for you or the person butchering your meat. I think we are getting back to that.”
For Market to Market, I’m Laurel Bower Burgmaier.