The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

BrightFarms

BrightFarms

Sustainability

November 27, 2011

BrightFarms designs, finances, builds and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms at supermarkets – eliminating shipping, and reducing fuel consumption, carbon emissions and water use. In October this year, they announced their first major deal with a U.S. grocery chain. They will build a one-acre Ultra Local greenhouse for McCaffrey’s Markets of Pennsylvania. In previous years their work included installing a demonstration scale, sustainable urban greenhouse for a new Whole Foods Market store in Millburn, New Jersey, as well as designing an environmental education center and local food production facility on the roof of the Manhattan School for Children on the Upper West Side of New York City. We talked to Benjamin Linsley, VP of Business Development and Public Affairs for BrightFarms, about the benefits of changing the produce supply chain in a way that improves the planet and a retailer’s bottom line.

How does the BrightFarms program work and what was the inspiration behind its creation?

BrightFarms eliminates time, distance and cost from the food supply chain. We build our greenhouses on supermarket roofs, on nearby land or at the retailer’s distribution center. There is no cost to the retailer.

The supermarket only pays for the produce. They pay the same or a better price for their produce, and they sign a long term purchasing contract. We use the long-term contract to finance the capital investment.

The inspiration for the business model came from scrutinizing the current food system. It makes little sense to truck lettuces and tomatoes thousands of miles, from one side of the country to another. Produce is mostly made up of water, so we are using large amounts of gasoline to truck water across the United States. We end up with a product that is low quality because it's highly perishable and not well suited to being trucked so far, and a product that places a particularly heavy burden on the environment.  

Supermarket customers get a fresher, better product because it was grown locally and delivered within hours, not days. It was grown for taste and not for shelf life. We like to call this, Ultra Local Produce. In the process we also save millions of tons of carbon emissions from being released into the atmosphere. 

How have you been able to merge commerce with sustainable business practices?

We want to revolutionize the food system. To do this, we need to build not one or two greenhouses, but hundreds of greenhouses across the entire North American supermarket sector. Every facility we build needs to meet our three-pronged principle of providing better food, in a way that is better for the environment, and in a way that makes better business sense for supermarkets (better profits). But to really succeed in our goal of revolutionizing the North American food system, each greenhouse needs to function as a robust, stand-alone business, which offers a great return on investment in its own right. 

What are the benefits of having a hydroponic greenhouse farm directly connected to a supermarket retailer?

Perishable items such as tomatoes and lettuces simply do not travel well. Lettuces have a very short natural shelf life. Under the current system, where the majority of lettuces are grown in California and Arizona, they frequently arrive home with customers on the other side of the country, already turning bad. The likelihood of buying a box of salad with rotten leaves at the bottom is incredibly off-putting for consumers. 

Tomatoes on the other hand, can be grown – if the grower chooses to – with a greater ability to withstand time and distance as they move the thousands of miles from production greenhouses to the supermarket shelf. These tomatoes, however, can be hard, watery and tasteless. 

A greenhouse built on, or next to, a store, can grow produce for taste and not for shelf life. The produce is harvested only when it’s ready or ripe, and delivered to the shelf within 24 hours of harvest. The opportunity is quite simply to provide the best quality produce imaginable. 

What's the future of the program? Where do you think you'll have the biggest impact?

Our business model has been developed to work for all grocery retailers. Our objective is to have an impact across the entire North American industry.  

Why does a program like yours matter to the retailer? To the consumer?

Retailers routinely accept shrink rates of 8 to 10% for perishable items. We think this is unacceptable and unnecessary. By producing onsite, retailers will be able to dramatically reduce their shrink rates, which in turn improves their margins. Furthermore, the ability to provide customers with a much, much better product will improve overall sales. Low quality, high prices, and insufficient shelf life keep people from buying as much produce, as they would otherwise wish to. A better, well-priced product will sell better. 



In upcoming issues, we will continue to feature interviews with companies that are taking innovative steps toward the creation of sustainable products and services. If you are interested in telling us more about what your company is doing please contact Allison Bloom at allison@foodnutritionscience.com.