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Gotham Greens: a profitable agricultural business in the heart of New York City
The scarcity of open land in large cities would seem to be an insurmountable obstacle to building a profitable agricultural business in New York City, but Gotham Greens has managed to do just that. With a couple of hydroponic growing operations in the city, they provide high-quality, local greens to the residents of New York and the surrounding area.
“There is not a lot of space available in large cities, and any land that is available is probably more valuable to a real estate developer than to a grower,” explained Viraj Puri of Gotham Greens. Aside from the difficulty of securing land on which to grow fresh produce, the quality of soil in most cities is usually unfit for agricultural purposes. Gotham Greens' founders looked into growing on rooftops, which are plentiful in New York, but replenishing soil or soil substrate on top of buildings is cost-prohibitive and could structurally compromise some buildings. So Gotham Greens went with a rooftop hydroponic growing system that delivers nutrients to plants via recycled water.
“We employ a nutrient film technique that runs a stream of water just beneath the plant roots,” said Viraj Puri. “The water is recycled, so we use about a tenth of the water that conventional growers use and we can reach yields that are 20 times more than those from conventional crops.” Gotham Greens' total climate system measures temperature, humidity, light levels and an array of other factors in order to create the perfect growing climate for their greens. The automated greenhouse then adjusts shades, vents and heaters to facilitate optimal plant growth 365 days out of the year. While heating a greenhouse during the cold New York winter uses more energy than a greenhouse in Mexico would ever need, Viraj Puri argues that their energy efficient system and the benefits of local produce outweigh the higher heating costs.
“We don't have to transport our produce over long distances, so we save on transportation and we use fewer fossil fuels,” said Viraj Puri. “A lot of the design features of our facility and the renewable energy resources we have means we need about half the heating that other greenhouses in New York need.” Because they can pick their greens in the morning and have them in a supermarket later that afternoon also means their products are fresh, relative to greens shipped from Mexico. In fact, their second facility is located on the roof of Whole Foods Market’s flagship Brooklyn location, meaning that the product is only an elevator ride away from farm to shelf. Gotham Greens currently sells all of their produce within a 20 mile radius of their greenhouses where the entire growing process is sterile and insects are used as pest control, so there are no pesticide residues or contaminants to worry about. A longer shelf life and just a higher class of product attracts consumers and ensures repeat sales and premium prices.
“Our focus is on packaged salads and leafy greens that we can sell as a high-quality product and be competitive in retail stores,” said Viraj Puri. “It seems like there are more and more start-ups that are interested in vertical farms and completely indoor growing, so we want to focus on the product. You can only get attention for so long for growing in the city, but the product has to stand on its own two feet. We don't want to focus on trying to re-invent something or come up with a new business model; our goal is to focus on putting out a high-quality product.” Gotham Greens currently has two greenhouses in the New York area that provide their branded greens to retailers like Whole Foods Market, D'Agostino, Fresh Direct and Pea Pod as well as smaller neighbourhood grocers. They plan on opening two more greenhouses in 2015, a 60,000 sq ft rooftop farm in Queens and a 75,000 sq ft facility in Chicago, which is slated to be the world’s largest rooftop farm.
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