How one hydroponic produce supplier
plans to change the world of food retailing
Photographed by Danya Henninger
Imagine an uber-winter, the Earth sheathed in inhospitable chill. In the middle of a frozen tundra, a greenhouse glints in the sun. The unlikely scent of cut summer grass fills the attached storehouse, wafting from huge machines that clutch shreds of organic debris in metallic claws. Giant tanks filtering rainwater provide a low, gurgling soundtrack.
Beyond them, pallets of green stretch throughout the vast room, a sea of leaves basking in sun that infiltrates ceilings of polarized glass. Floating islands of lettuce and herbs drift on watery canals, while huge fans whir as they circulate filtered air over the hydroponic landscape.
No matter the unfavorable exterior conditions, more than 500,000 pounds of vegetables could be grown here each year. Harvested and packaged on-site, the greens would hit retail shelves a day or two later, ready to be scooped up by customers thankful for a source of fresh produce in this disastrously climate-changed future.
For the moment, a planet-wide freeze brought on by distorted atmospheric conditions remains imaginary, but the state-of-the-art greenhouse is not. It’s Bright- Farms’ first grow center, now up and running in Bucks County. The company’s climate-change-proof farming might well represent the future of supermarket produce, and this farm is its proving ground.
The 56,000-square-foot facility sits on land owned by Lower Makefield Township, where it grows nearly a dozen varieties of leafy greens destined for more than 275 regional supermarkets. Walk into a Pathmark or SuperFresh in New York, New Jersey or southeastern Pennsylvania and look for the BrightFarms logo—find it and you’ll be buying locally grown arugula, watercress and basil, even in the dead of winter.
“At first, some local farmers were opposed
to this project because they thought we’d be
competing with them, but when we showed
them our product mix—lettuce and kale, not
corn, not blueberries—they realized we’re really
competing with those huge California farms.”
Year-round local greens on East Coast shelves is anything but status quo. More than 98% of commercial lettuce is produced in California or Arizona, according to the USDA-funded Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. That means most of the lettuce in mid-Atlantic grocery stores has traveled at least a week before customers see it, using up inordinate amounts of fuel as it’s trucked across the country in trailers kept just above freezing. From there it’s transferred to regional distribution centers, then to individual stockrooms. Only after that is it put out for sale. Is it any wonder spring mix wilts a day after you bring it home?
More often than not, people don’t even have a chance to buy lettuce before it begins decaying. The desire to offer his customers a better product was one reason Jim McCaffrey became BrightFarms’ first retail partner in 2010, signing an agreement to sell the company’s produce in his Yardley-based mini-chain of supermarkets.
McCaffrey, a South Philly native who opened his first grocery store 26 years ago, was one of the first executives to realize the BrightFarms concept was about more than saving the environment—it was a smart business decision. Not only could he cater to the hot trends driving produce sales, he also could save on spoilage. “Everybody is looking for local. Everybody is looking for freshness. Everybody wants to know where their produce is coming from. They want it in a pest-free, all-natural environment. This is a win-win,” McCaffrey told Bucks Local News in March 2013.
“Jim McCaffrey is a visionary,” said BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot when I spoke with him that same month. “He was the first guy in the industry who had the courage to sign up.”
McCaffrey and his courage are the reason the inaugural facility for the NYC-headquartered start-up ended up in southeastern Pennsylvania. There are plenty of traditional farms in this region, but not many that can produce year-round, especially not at supermarket scale.
“At first, some local farmers were opposed to this project because they thought we’d be competing with them, but when we showed them our product mix—lettuce and kale, not corn, not blueberries—they realized we’re really competing with those huge California farms,” explains BrightFarms director of business development Toby Tiktinsky as he takes me on a greenhouse tour. Do the California farms feel threatened by the hydroponic startup? “I would love it if they were scared!” he says, adding, “I would be scared if I had to try to find farm water in California right now.” At least nine other BrightFarms greenhouses are now in various stages of planning, including ones near St. Louis; Oklahoma City; Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; and Washington, D.C., where a facility twice the size of Bucks County’s is expected to begin producing in January 2015.
Construction at each location begins only after an area retailer signs on to purchase a certain quantity of produce for a certain number of years (usually a decade or longer). The contract is called a produce purchase agreement (PPA), and it follows a business model widely used in the solar power industry, where Lightfoot worked for several years.
Supermarket partners don’t put out cash or invest in construction of the greenhouse—all that is handled by BrightFarms, which owns, manages and operates the facilities—but they are guaranteed a good deal.
Because BrightFarms doesn’t need to pay long-distance truck drivers or underwrite fuel costs, it can meet or beat market pricing. (As Lightfoot pointed out in a 2012 TEDx Talk: “More than half the cost of lettuce isn’t lettuce, it’s the long and complex supply chain.”) Plus, since all growing is done indoors, prices are stable and not subject to seasonal changes or capricious weather, such as an early frost that could decimate an entire crop.
BrightFarms, for its part, uses the PPAs to get financing. By showing banks or investors the supermarkets’ purchase pledges, the company proves its ability to bring in future revenue and so is granted loans and funding.
It’s good business on all sides, assuming the greenhouses generate produce as expected.
However, since this hasn’t been done before, that’s no sure thing.
In the first few months after its January 2013 launch, the Bucks County greenhouse was not living up to expectations. The nutrient film technique (NFT) system originally installed wasn’t meeting large-scale requirements for quality or efficiency.
“It was a challenging scenario,” recalls director of agriculture Graham Tucker, who had just joined the company. “[The greenhouse] was just getting geared up, and then we hit some limitations that convinced us we wanted to revisit everything and look for a more productive system.”
Lightfoot is not one to give up easily—“I want to change the world. If you’re going to be slow, I’m not going to wait around for you,” he once told me—and he didn’t hesitate to shut down the Pennsylvania farm for a major overhaul.
After investigating options around the globe, BrightFarms implemented a new kind of hydroponic system. Known as “pond raft” or “deep flow,” the growing method is already in wide use in Asia and Italy, though it’s not yet common in the United States. Instead of a thin layer of water dispersed across shallow plastic gullies, vegetables grow atop special boards that float on troughs around two or three feet deep. It’s easier to maintain optimum water temperature this way, says Tucker, as well as keep nutrient levels steady.
Approximately 25 sensors around the greenhouse measure these variables, plus things like CO2 levels, air temperature, humidity and pH levels. All info is sent to a computer, which uses an algorithm to automatically open cold- or hot-water pipes, turn vents on or off, and roll out or retract roof curtains to keep measurements inside set parameters.
All the water is recirculated, with filtered rainwater added when needed, so there’s no runoff to worry about. Even if there was runoff, it wouldn’t be of much concern, since only natural pesticides are used, and those only rarely. To minimize the introduction of outside pests to the ecosystem, visitors must cover their shoes and hair before entering, and the dozen or so people who work at the facility all keep special footwear on-site, changing into it on arrival each morning.
People are an integral part of maintaining the greenhouse, but the pond raft system also incorporates several specialized machines that help seed and harvest the produce more efficiently.
It all begins with a special four-by-eight foot polystyrene board (the “pond raft”), which is indented with dozens of furrows no more than an eighth of an inch wide and less than a few centimeters apart. (Compare these tightly spaced lines to the walkable ridges drawn by a field tractor and you begin to understand why BrightFarms can grow using one-tenth the land as traditional agriculture.)
The board is fed into an Italian-made contraption that fills the furrows with a mixture of peat, perlite and vermiculite, then uses vacuum suction to drop seeds directly into the center of the grow medium as a staffer keeps watch for any stray kernels. Water is sprinkled over the top, and then the skid heads to a germination chamber for a day, where it sits in the darkness, surrounded by 100% humidity—exactly what you need for seeds to sprout.
Once sprouted, the boards are taken to the greenhouse, where they’re placed into the far edge of the huge pond. Standing at that side of the room is actually a bit like looking into the future (albeit just a few days ahead), since the boards are moved toward the other end as they grow, pushed along manually but gently by galoshes-clad workers wielding long wooden paddles.
At the other side, boards boasting a full cover of greenery are lifted out of the pond and onto a conveyor belt so they can be rolled back into the storehouse for harvesting. Once mature boards are removed from the near side of the water field, it opens up space at the far end, and the whole process can repeat itself.
Harvesting is done by another apparatus imported from Italy, which uses a series of rotating blades to separate the leaves from their roots. The leaves then head to a cooling room, where they’ll be hand packed and labeled for sale the next day. Then it’s onto a truck for a very short trip to the supermarket—the farthest one supplied by the Lower Makefield Township facility is around 90 minutes away.
Since March 2014, the Bucks County greenhouse has been producing at full capacity, shipping 750 pounds of produce a day, a number equivalent to 2,400 clear plastic boxes full of greens.
It might already seem like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to what will be produced when other greenhouses come online. BrightFarms currently has over $100 million in contracted backlog—that’s how much produce supermarkets have signed on to buy so far—and momentum is still building. BrightFarms is planning to develop greenhouses that produce other types of vegetables, too: Tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries are next on the list to try.
As more and more consumers recognize the benefits of buying local and eating pesticide-free, more and more supermarkets will join up. Instead of cold and barren, the future looks lush and green.