Byline correction: Cookson Beecher reported and wrote this story. Our apologies for initially publishing it under a different staffer’s byline. Other stories by Beecher can be found by clicking here.

“We are farmers who live in apartments.” Thus begins an introduction to Gotham Greens, a large U.S. greenhouse farm.

No, this isn’t the typical farm set in a rural region of the United States. And the farmers aren’t clad in overalls driving expensive farm equipment through fields of crops, many of which are being grown for customers in far-flung corners of the United States or for buyers overseas.

Gotham Greens has a rooftop greenhouse on this Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn.

Quite the opposite. Gotham Greens is all about growing crops such as lettuces, salad greens and herbs for people “just down the street” — or in the case of its large greenhouse farm on the rooftop of Whole Foods in New York City, to the market literally under its feet.

So what is this all about? Simply put, it’s about growing certain crops not outside but rather inside greenhouses, which are on urban roof tops and don’t use soil. Or, as Gotham Greens says on its website, “reimagining how and when fresh food is grown.” The “where” in the company’s case is in cities across America. The “when” is year round, which is possible with greenhouse farming.

Food safety an important part of the equation
While a large part of this evolving type of agriculture is driven by a deep seated “philosophy” about sustainability, some of it is also being fueled by repeated romaine recalls in the past several years. Those recalls have been linked to outbreaks from romaine lettuce contaminated by the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 pathogen. The romaine was grown in open fields in the Yuma, AZ, and Salinas, CA, regions.

Without a doubt, food safety plays an important part in the greenhouse approach to agriculture, as Viraj Puri, co-founder and CEO of Gotham Greens said.

“Food safety is of paramount importance to Gotham Greens and has been since our founding 10 years ago,” Puri told Food Safety News.

Pointing out that  the greenhouse vegetable industry has an inherent food safety advantage compared to open field farming, he attributes this advantage to its “physical infrastructure and higher levels of environmental controls.”

For example, wild and domestic animals can’t get into the greenhouses and birds flying overhead can’t contaminate the crops with their droppings. And because the greenhouses use a hydroponic system, which takes nutrients added to water tested for cleanliness directly to the plants’ roots, there’s little chance of contamination from water, as can be the case with conventional farming. Then, too, the system bypasses the use of soil, which is another possible contaminant.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture actually refers to greenhouse farming as “controlled-agriculture.”

Puri said that in contrast to greenhouse farming, many conventional farms growing leafy greens until very recently didn’t abide by strict water use and testing controls. And even with some improvements, outbreaks have occurred.

What the consumers want
Customer demand also plays a big part in greenhouse farming. Puri said that with more frequent foodborne illness outbreaks linked to conventionally grown leafy greens, retailers and shoppers are increasingly looking to Gotham Greens and other greenhouse growers “to deliver a reliable supply of fresh, clean and safe produce year round.”

“Retailers and foodservice operators are recognizing the reliability, consistency and premium quality of produce that is possible with crops grown under protected greenhouse cover,” he said.

As part of that, Gotham Greens’ packaging includes clear labeling that its products are locally and sustainably grown in a greenhouse. In addition, the farm has information on its website and offers tours.

Puri refers to this increased awareness as a “renaissance.”

Even so, he said that greenhouse farming “certainly does not guarantee perfect food safety,” pointing out that it’s up to the operators to create high standards and abide by strong programs.

Growing a dream on roof tops
The company’s history is impressive, with many firsts to its name.

In 2011, it built the first commercial scale rooftop greenhouse facility in the United States — in the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Three years later it built a greenhouse farm on the rooftop of a Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn, which allowed Gotham Greens to supply the store and nearby restaurants with fresh produce  year round. No need for long haul trucking for these greens. In doing this, it marked the first commercial-scale greenhouse farm coordinated with a supermarket — worldwide.

In 2015, it headed toward the Midwest and opened the world’s largest rooftop greenhouse, 75,000 square feet, in Chicago.

That same year it opened its third and largest greenhouse facility in New York City. This one, 60,000 square feet was built on the former Ideal Toy Co. factory and serves customers in the New York Tri-State region.

At the end of 2019, Gotham Greens expanded eight greehouse facilities in five U.S. states and expanded regional distribution to more than 30 U.S. states.

And now in early 2020, it has opened another greenhouse farm in Baltimore, MD.

Altogether, the farm is distributing food to thousands of grocery stores, as well as to restaurants and other foodservice businesses, in more than 30 states.

Prior to founding Gotham Greens, Puri, who is not from a farming or food background, developed and managed start-up enterprises in New York, India and Malawi, Africa. The focus was on sustainable agriculture, green building, renewable energy, and environmental design.

He soon became “enamored” with how such high-quality food with so few resources could be grown in climate controlled greenhouses.

Growing crops  . . .  and cities
Gotham Greens’ owners are quick to point out that the company is not only growing crops. but growing cities as well. Not only does it employ local people — more than 300  — but it also adds to a city’s economic base.

It also adds to a city’s “green profile.” Its greenhouses are powered by sun and wind and climate controlled for a year round growing season.

Nutrition is also important here. By growing its lettuces and greens in neighborhoods, Gotham Greens can supply people who live in those neighborhoods and surrounding areas with a fresh supply of goods.

Contrast that with lettuces and greens grown in the Yuma, AZ, and Salinas, CA, growing areas. Accounting for 90 percent of the lettuces and greens grown  in the U.S. during the winter months, they’re shipped across the United States and up into Canada. When it comes to freshness, Puri said they can’t compare with the ones grown in a neighborhood and put on the grocery shelves or distributed to restaurants and other food service establishments — sometimes the same day they’re harvested.

Of course, greenhouse lettuces and greens aren’t going to take over the  crops grown in huge field-grown farms any time soon. And Puri doesn’t hesitate to describe its place in the overall picture as just a “tiny, tiny piece” of the entire greens farming sector. “Still just a drop in the bucket.”

Nevertheless, this type of agriculture is making inroads.

During the 52 weeks ended Sept. 29, 2019, sales of produce marked as greenhouse grown increased 7.6 percent and sales of produce described as locally grown increased 23.2 percent, according to the latest FreshFacts on Retail report from the United Fresh Produce Association.

Controlled-environmental agriculture — another way to describe greenhouse cultivation when done according to certain standard — is helping grow a locally produced food market that the USDA predicts will reach $20 billion in sales by 2019, up from $12 billion in 2014. Final numbers for 2019 are not yet available.

The basil that sparked an evolution
It was an unexpected spark that lit the fire of Puri’s dream. He said that one evening when he and his partners were dining in an Italian restaurant in New York City, they asked one of the servers where the restaurant’s food was coming from.

To their amazement, they learned that the sweet basil was grown in Israel. That was especially amazing because the distance between the two places is more than 5,000 miles.

With than in mind, they quickly concluded that there shouldn’t be that much transportation involved to get food from one place to another.

Puri and Gotham Greens’ co-founder Eric Haley started talking about creating a sustainable farming company that could revolutionize where and how fresh local produce could be grown and distributed, while making a positive impact on the environment.

“It was winter in New York City and we realized that most of the produce we were finding in supermarkets was coming from places like Mexico, California and Israel. We realized that by the time the produce made its way here, it was at least a week old and had changed hands multiple times.”

They were also seeing a shift in consumers’ preferences toward more local and sustainably grown food. Puri pointed out that this preference may have idealistic undertones, but it also is rooted in some basic realities. Simply put, said Puri, produce shipped long distances has lost some of its nutritional value, quality, crispness, flavor and shelf life.

But there is more to it than that, said Puri, pointing out that conventional agriculture is “incredibly taxing” on the environment. For example, California and Arizona, both of which are drought-prone states, demand an incredible amount of irrigation water for crops to survive and thrive in the desert where they’re grown.

On a mission

Viraj Puri, one of Gotham Greens co-founders, pauses for a photo in one of the company’s greenhouses. Photo by Julie McMahon for Gotham Greens

“We’re on a mission to transform how and where fresh produce is grown by providing more people with access to local and sustainably grown produce,” said Puri. “There is an incredible value in growing highly perishable fresh food in close proximity to large population centers while using fewer natural resources. Greenhouse farming provides a profitable and proven way of achieving this.”

Together with a third partner, Jenn Frymark, the mission began to take root, with the farm’s “flagship” greenhouse in 2011 — the first commercial scale greenhouse on a rooftop in the United States. From there, Gotham Greens has grown to be to a multi-state greenhouse operator and one of the largest hydroponic leafy green producers in North America.

Puri said they purposely started small to prove the potential of the concept in the earlier years. The partners wanted to be sure that it could work in multiple settings and environments. Investors started coming onboard.

Puri is proud to say that Gotham Greens today operates 500,000 square feet of climate-controlled greenhouses across five U.S states. But more than that, he and his partners are proud that the farms produce is grown using hydroponic systems in 100 percent renewable electricity-powered greenhouses that are able to grow using 95 using less water and 97 percent less land than conventional field production.

“Revitalizing urban landscapes and creating hundreds of green jobs along the way,” is the way he describes it.

A fun science project
Puri said it’s half art and half science — even almost like a fun science project at times. There’s definitely a lot of technology involved, sensors throughout the growing area that can turn equipment on and off, for example.

“A lot of bells and whistles,” he said.

But there’s also the human component.

“There needs to be some love in it,” he said, pointing out that it’s their people who optimize it.

Technology is vitally important, he said, but not the most important. As much as we’re growing food, we’re also cultivating people.

The farm is also providing its employees with food safety training. Puri said that the company trains all of  its employees on its comprehensive food safety program and on proper food safety handling procedures when they first join Gotham Greens. It also conducts training sessions for all employees on an ongoing basis.

“Our people are on the front line, so their knowledge, training and enforcement of policies are vital to a strong and sustainable program,” he said. “All of our facilities are designed and equipped with handwashing stations, physical barriers and other infrastructure to support stringent food safety standards. We have cleaning, sanitization and testing programs together with strict visitor policies.”

The future?
Producing nutritious, flavorful and responsibly grown food, all year round while making a positive impact in communities is, Puri said, what they want to continue doing.

“Our goal is to bring our brand of premium quality, sustainably grown local produce and innovative greenhouses to more cities across the country,” he said. “We see a bright and promising future for the greenhouse grown produce category. We’ve barely scratched the surface.”

What about organic? While Puri said that Gotham Greens technically grows its food organically — using no pesticides or chemical fertilizers — he acknowledges that the focus of USDA’s organic program was intended to be about building the soil’s fertility and conservation.

Hydroponics is a controversial subject in the ag world. There’s even a lawsuit against the USDA for allowing food grown hydroponically to bear the National Organic Program’s seal.

Sylvia Wu, senior attorney for Center for Food Safety, says “federal organic law unequivocally  requires organic production to promote soil fertility.”  And Coalition for Sustainable Organics Executive Director Lee  Frankel says “healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming.”

One of the organic growers’ concerns is that food can be produced hydroponically at less cost than conventional farming.

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