Consumer interest in buying locally grown produce has increased steadily. State and community “buy local” campaigns often are directed to small, locally owned and managed growing operations. This level of production leaves a major gap between the amount of fresh produce grown and sold locally and the amount that can be used by local markets including restaurants, institutions and grocery stores. New York City-based Gotham Greens, founded in 2009, applies new technology to open up production of vegetables, particularly highly perishable leafy greens, closer to the markets where they can be consumed while at their freshest.

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Gotham Greens CEO Viraj Puri discusses quality and marketing opportunities of local, rooftop, greenhouse grown produce.

Chicago is the most recent city for Gotham Greens to provide locally grown produce in its nearly 2-acre, commercial rooftop greenhouse. The Chicago greenhouse has been producing greens since October 2015. The facility is built on top of a soap factory in the historic Pullman District on Chicago’s south side, once home to luxury-style Pullman railroad car production, and is contributing to revitalizing the business environment of that community.

The majority of greens consumed in the United States are grown in California, Arizona and Texas. It’s widely accepted that greens harvested, delivered and served the same day are fresher than greens that have to be shipped across the country. That premise spurred Gotham Greens to build rooftop gardens in urban settings where land is difficult to obtain. The Chicago site joins three other Gotham Greens rooftop greenhouses in Brooklyn and Queens in New York City. The four greenhouses bring Gotham Greens’ total production space to a total of 170,000 square feet of rooftop greenhouses. Gotham Greens is the marrying production of highly perishable greens and major markets in urban settings, using technology to assure the freshest greens possible are available year-round.

Initiating the concept

Gotham Greens’ co-founders CEO Viraj Puri and chief greenhouse officer Jennifer Nelkin Frymark combined their expertise to apply technologies that not only grow produce close to target markets but also benefit local communities. In addition to providing year-round jobs, the greenhouses are contributing to revitalization of urban businesses in their communities.

Puri spent time in India and Africa managing start-up enterprises on sustainable agriculture, and in those experiences, he gained insight into how less developed countries are adapting existing technology to meet their needs. He said, “We identified a need for fresh local produce in cities and customized a suite of greenhouse and renewable energy technology to improve city dwellers’ access to year-round, fresh, local produce.”

Citing global urbanization trends, Puri said, “If you look at global urbanization trends, people are increasingly choosing to live in cities. While cities don’t have a ton of arable land or fertile soil, we do have tons of unused rooftop space. Operating on rooftops allows us to grow fresh produce close to the people who will be eating it. Back in 2008, no one was doing this on a commercial scale in the U.S., so we saw a huge opportunity.”

Building for sustainable production

Gotham Greens launched its first rooftop greenhouse in 2011 in Queens, in New York City, followed by a second greenhouse in 2013 in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus. On top of a Whole Foods Market, the Queens greenhouse was the first commercial scale greenhouse integrated into a supermarket. Whole Foods Market’s commitment to promoting local, healthy and sustainably produced food encouraged Gotham Greens to view the partnership as a perfect match. The greenhouse produces over 200,000 pounds of leafy greens, herbs and tomatoes annually. A third greenhouse was built in the Greater Jamaica neighborhood of Hollis in Queens, with Chicago being the most recent facility.

Puri said, “My partners and I worked alongside a skilled team of contractors and architects to build our rooftop greenhouses. Being a pioneer in this type of facility development meant that there was little precedent and no examples to follow. Architecture, engineering, permitting, regulatory factors and construction are unique challenges that greenhouse growers typically aren’t accustomed to. We’ve taken our experience in greenhouse and environmental design, and green building, and have adapted it to urban, specifically rooftop application.”

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Gotham Greens’ leafy greens are packaged for consumer purchase in grocery stores.

Key elements in the sustainable agriculture focus are the solar photovoltaic panels with high efficiency design, including LED lighting, advanced glazing, passive ventilation and thermal curtains that reduce electrical and heating demand. Recirculating irrigation systems capture water for reuse and are free of any harmful chemical pesticides, insecticides or herbicides.

Greenhouse production

Despite continuing mechanization, all fruit and vegetable production relies heavily on hand labor. An advantage for greenhouse workers is that they are assured of year-round jobs, and wages are generally higher than in traditional field growing operations.

All produce is seeded in the individual greenhouses and variety testing is done on a regular basis. “We’ve chosen to focus primarily on leafy greens, lettuce and herbs,” Puri said. “These vegetables are highly perishable and are difficult to find locally year-round. We certainly look to market trends as well to ensure our products are relevant while specializing in varieties that do well hydroponically in a controlled environment.”

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Leafy greens grow in Chicago’s rooftop greenhouse, the fourth in Gotham Greens’ urban greenhouses.

Instead of using chemical pesticides, an extensive integrated pest management program is incorporated into growing operations. This program includes monitoring, environmental and physical controls and the use of beneficial insects. “Every week, Gotham Greens releases over 10,000 beneficial insects into our greenhouses to prey upon the ‘bad bugs,'” Puri said. “We keep our sterile greenhouses pristine and maintain stringent food safety plans, which have been developed according to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) guidelines to ensure product safety and eliminate potential for product contamination.”

Appropriate nutrients are essential to ensure proper growth of produce regardless of the setting in which they are grown. Puri said, “We use unique and proprietary blends of mineral salts and micronutrients, including nitrogen, potassium and magnesium.” Many are certified by the Organic Material Review Institute (OMRI) to create nutrient recipes tailored to each plant for optimal nutrition.

Marketing greens

Puri said that Gotham Greens products are priced competitively with most national brands. He added, “That being said, we also believe we have a superior quality product with increased freshness, nutrition and shelf life. Our costs are greater in some areas. We pay our workers much higher than conventional farm workers, (and) invest in renewable energy and other sustainable farming practices, which do cost more. However, we make up for that by reduced transportation costs, which allows us to be competitively priced. All of our produce is delivered to our customers hyper-locally, so we’re not shipping across long distances.”

The 2-acre Chicago greenhouse is harvested in the south side Pullman District, contributing to revitalizing community businesses.

Puri said, “We’ve proven our model multiple times in New York City and now Chicago. We’re looking to expand deeper in those markets as well as wider to new markets.”