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A roof, some greenhouses and a new way to supply supermarkets?

Greenhouse growers are popping up on big-city rootops across North America. And they want to work with grocery stores

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Late in 2011, David Wilson, the produce manager for B.C.’s Choices Markets, found himself with a predicament to which most grocers can easily relate: How to get more local fruit and vegetables into Choices’ seven stores, most of which are deep inside Vancouver neighbourhoods including Kerrisdale and suburbs such as Surrey.

Help came in the form of a phone call from a new grower with an appropriate name: Local Garden. “They approached us right as they were planting their first crop,” recalls Wilson. “We committed right away.”

Local Garden, as it turned out, was not merely local, it was hyper-local. The company had recently set up a 5,800-square-foot greenhouse on the roof of a municipal parking garage in downtown Vancouver. One of Choices’ stores, in Yaletown, was a mere two kilometers away and the rest weren’t so far away either.

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Nearly two years later, Wilson is pleased with the relationship. Local Garden currently supplies Choices Markets with veggies such as kale, arugula, salad mixes and herbs. In particular, Choices is able to quickly adjust shelf space in the event that Local Garden has an exceptionally bountiful crop on its hands.

“They’ve knocked on our door at various times over the last six months and said, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve got new packages of basil available tomorrow. Are you interested?’ ” Wilson explains.

This relationship gives Choices a chance to have a product that no one else has. “They might only have 10 or 12 boxes of this product, and they’ll look to us to get it to market.”

Choices and Local Garden do not have a long-term supply deal. Wilson says he reorders based on the previous week’s sales. His isn’t the only chain in Vancouver buying from the greenhouse.

According to Local Garden’s website, its supermarket clients include Overwaitea Group’s Urban Fare stores in Vancouver and H.Y. Louie’s Fresh Street Market, a store that opened earlier this year in tony West Vancouver.

A parking garage seems like an unlikely spot to grow food. But Local Garden is no one-off. From Vancouver to Montreal, from New York to Chicago, an interesting experiment is afoot.

Startup greenhouse operators are setting up shop on city rooftops, in abandoned buildings and on vacant industrial lots. Some are content to sell a few boxes of tomatoes and lettuce directly to restaurant chefs and consumers.

But others have bigger plans: to become a go-to supplier of produce to urban supermarkets. The advantage, they say, is not just local food, but steady supply and produce that tastes as if it were picked yesterday, because in many cases, it was.

Among the biggest players in the urban farm movement is BrightFarms. The New York City-based company started as a not-for-profit, providing food to schools and community groups.

Two years ago, it hit on an intriguing idea: BrightFarms would finance, design, build and operate greenhouse farms on top of, or near to, grocery stores. In turn, those grocery stores would agree to buy a certain amount of produce from the greenhouse for the next 10 years.

The first grocer to sign on with BrightFarms was a supermarket chain with stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey called McCaffrey’s. To supply its stores, BrightFarms built a 56,000-square-foot conventional, ground-level greenhouse in Yardley, Penn.

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Opened this past winter, it supplies McCaffrey’s with tomatoes, lettuce and micro greens and is capable of growing 500,000 pounds of produce per year.

Tony Mirack is McCaffrey’s produce buyer. He believes the supply deal gives his company “an edge” in the highly competitive grocery environment.

“It’s something you can physically see when you pull out of the parking lot; drive up the street and [here’s] this huge greenhouse. It inspires a lot of confidence. You know where your produce is coming from.”

Mirack adds that the greenhouse allows his stores to experiment with the products they carry, as well as deal directly with the grower.

“They grew these grape tomatoes, and they had the most unbelievable flavour,” he says. “We have the opportunity to work with these varieties that have really unique flavours and characteristics. I’m not so much concerned with tomatoes on the vine. Everyone has those. I want to have stuff that’s exclusive to us.”

BrightFarms CEO, Paul Lightfoot, says his company now has some seven other greenhouses in various stages of development. They include a 100,000-square-foot rooftop hydroponic greenhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., that will supply A&P stores; and a similar-sized greenhouse in Indianapolis for the 97-store Marsh supermarket chain.

BrightFarms also has deals to build greenhouses for 76-store Homeland Stores, in Oklahoma and 99-store Schnucks Markets, based in St. Louis.

“Just a handful of grocers have a meaningful supply of year-round local produce and very few have their own farm,” Lightfoot says. “Partnering with us provides grocers with a competitive advantage and allows them to offer their customers the freshest, most flavourful produce from a source they can trust.”

Lightfoot also believes his greenhouses offer grocery chains positive public relations in the form of job creation and real-estate revitalization. BrightFarms’ Brooklyn greenhouse is creating 25 full-time jobs.

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Its Indianapolis facility, meanwhile, is going up on five acres of commercial land that have stood vacant since Bill Clinton’s first term in office.

BrightFarms is targeting national and giant regional supermarkets. Other operators are thinking more local.

In Bedford Park, Ill., just outside Chicago, a company called Farmed Here LLC grows organic basil, arugula (under the clever brand name Windy City Arugula) and other greens in a vacant warehouse. It’s customers? Several major Chicagoland supermarkets.

Farmed Here operates a lot like any other farm. Crops take about a month to grow, after which they are harvested and packed by a dozen workers in a cooling room. The next morning, product is loaded up into two vans and delivered to area grocery stores. They include Whole Foods and Chicago chains Mariano’s and Pete’s Fresh Markets.

Like any good factory supplier, Farmed Here claims to offer its customers immense flexibility. “On-demand farming” is how Farmed Here’s CEO, Yolanda Hardej, puts it.

“Let’s say that the demand is suddenly for various types of arugula or various types of mixed greens, or mini greens,” she says. “We could change the whole system … and pretty much within the next 14 to 28 days, we have a full-grown plant, whatever the market requires.”

Some urban greenhouses are bypassing supermarkets altogether and shipping directly to consumers. One of these is Lufa Farms. Lufa runs a subscription basket service with 3,000 customers in the Montreal region.

Much of Lufa’s produce is grown in a 31,000-square-foot hydroponic rooftop greenhouse, opened in 2011 in Montreal’s Ahuntsic-Cartierville neighbourhood.

A second greenhouse was recently added on top of an office building in suburban Laval and by September Lufa was to harvest more than 20 varieties of tomatoes and several types of eggplants from this greenhouse.

Mohamed Hage, Lufa’s CEO, says that conventional produce suppliers can’t beat his products’ freshness. “We start picking at around five in the morning, and ship in the afternoon.”

Another advantage, he says, is reduced spoilage and shipping damage. “We use the vine as storage. Something like 30% of what comes out of a conventional greenhouse never even makes it to the consumer. It’s lost in transportation, warehousing, packaging, what have you. That doesn’t happen for us.”

Rooftop greenhouses may be a good idea, but do they make sense economically? Right now it’s hard to say. On the plus side, they’re attracting financing. VanCity, a well-known B.C. credit union, financed construction of Local Garden’s parkade greenhouse in Vancouver.

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BrightFarms’ greenhouse in Indianapolis was backed by that city’s Westside Community Development Corporation, a not-for-profit whose mission is to revitalize commercial activity and housing in the blighted Indianapolis neighbourhood where the greenhouse is to be located.

But building greenhouses in inner cities doesn’t come cheap. Lufa Farms’ greenhouse cost approximately $2.3 million to build, twice the cost of a regular greenhouse.

Rooftop greenhouses use less heat than conventional ones, but still can’t make up for the lack of light that comes with a Canadian winter. They have to use supplemental light during the winter months, further increasing costs.

That, of course, can drive up costs on the shelf. A five-ounce clamshell of Local Garden’s salad greens sells for $4.98, or about one dollar more than many similar clamshells.

Greenhouses have other limitations as well. A notable lack of variety, for example. Outside of tomatoes, lettuce and other greens, most fruit and vegetables still need to be farmed the old-fashioned way.

“We tried strawberries, but they weren’t profitable,” says Lufa’s Hage. “The cost couldn’t be justified. We would have had to charge something along the lines of eight dollars a pint, and we knew that was just ridiculous.”

Another problem that could prevent urban greenhouses from being anything more than a curiosity is their relatively small output.

For example, when it is completed BrightFarms’ rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn will be able to produce one million pounds of tomatoes, lettuce and herbs a year. That sounds like a lot, but it’s only enough to supply about 5,000 New York families.

It’s unlikely that city greenhouses will ever replace big produce growing regions such as the Salinas Valley, dubbed the world’s salad bowl for the vast quantities of lettuce and other greens that grow there.

Still, urban greenhouse growers are proving to be inveterate tinkerers. Across the globe they’re hard at work figuring out ways to reduce costs and increase yields.

Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist and author of The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, recently noted that city farmers in Germany are experimenting with flickering lights. They use less power but still give off enough light to grow plants.

In Japan, meanwhile, experiments are underway using a mixture of natural and artificial light. As energy efficient LED lights become more affordable, the cost of growing food indoors could also fall, experts surmise.

Hage says Lufa Farms is working with designers and engineers to make rooftop agriculture more cost-effective by reducing startup costs. In Vancouver, Local Garden grows plants vertically on trays using a system called Verticrop.

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This system maximizes a building’s vertical space while minimizing energy and water use. The company says it can grow 3,500 pounds of produce a week in just 6,000 square feet, as much food as a five-acre farm.

“We believe that five years from now you should buy from us because it’s better for you, and because it’s cheaper; the idea of local eating makes sense from a cost perspective,” Hage says. “It’s going to become more and more expensive to move food across long distances. The more people live in major cities, the better the business case becomes.”

For city greenouses to really take off, they’ll need to forge the type of long-term partnerships with supermarkets that BrightFarms is making.

Without grocery-store customers, the market for produce grown in these facilities will remain small. The good news is that grocery chains both big and small appear willing to give greenhouses a shot.

Whole Foods recently announced that it would put a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse on its new store in the Gowanus neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Whole Foods’ partner in the arrangement is Gotham Greens, an urban farming outfit that will operate the greenhouse.

Companies such as Whole Foods believe the product coming from greenhouses plays on more than their customers’ desire to purchase local produce. Tomatoes, greens and herbs coming out of the Gowanus greenhouse will be pesticide-free and non-GMO.

Another advantage is flavour. The best-tasting tomatoes, green peppers and lettuce are fresh picked and eaten right away, not the ones trucked across the continent.

“We had someone tell us that our lettuce tastes like it’s still growing. That was the best compliment we could have gotten,” says Kate Siskel, BrightFarms’ marketing director.

Back at Choices Markets, Wilson, the produce manager, makes another interesting observation. Greenhouses such as Local Garden could end up reducing Canada’s dependence on imported food.

“One of the biggest challenges we have here in the north is we don’t get enough light for half the year,” he says. “If they can overcome that, it will be a huge boon to getting locally accessible food year-round, which is something we don’t have right now. They’re knocking on the door of food security.”

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