National Editor Tom Karst chatted on March 30 with Paul Lightfoot, chief executive officer of BrightFarms, a hydroponic greenhouse rooftop farm company in New York City.
2:30 p.m. Tom Karst: I was interested to hear about the April 5 event to announce of the opening of BrightFarms in Brooklyn, which your company has said will be the nation’s first and largest greenhouse rooftop facility. Is there a lot of resonance and support for this concept?
Lightfoot2:31 p.m. Paul Lightfoot: Very much so. People are really clamoring for more food that is local, so they know where it comes from. Me being in this business is not a coincidence; I’m responding to the market demand. And in this case, the city of New York has not produced a whole lot of produce historically, and it’s a big city.
So people are really interested and places I don’t always think about, like the people who run New York City, the elected officials, are really excited to see jobs created in New York City that are about creating food, which forever has been brought in from the West Coast or other countries.
2:36 p.m. Karst: Is it your ambition to have several of these greenhouses and operate them yourselves, or to market the concept and have other people take ownership?
2:37 p.m. Lightfoot: We will own the facility and operate it on behalf of our supermarket clients. In every instance we will hold on to the facility and will operate it and deliver the output to supermarkets. That’s the model we are rolling out everywhere.
2:38 p.m. Karst: What are the crops you are looking to grow in the Brooklyn greenhouse?
2:39 p.m. Lightfoot: In this case, it will be lettuce and tomatoes and a a small amount of herbs like basil. That may not always be the case, but what will always be the case is that we are looking for the intersection between high demand, our ability to grow that product in a controlled hydroponic environment, and the arbitrage opportunity.
For example, we’re not trying to grow kale here, because kale doesn’t present a great arbitrage opportunity. You can grow kale pretty easily in a lot of places and pretty cheaply, but lettuce and tomatoes, we feel they are produced relatively inefficiently in North America.
Lettuce in particularly is almost entirely coming from the West Coast and is produced in a way that the producer of the food is getting less than half of the wholesale cost.
2:40 p.m. Karst: When will the facility have produce coming off the roof?
2:41 p.m. Lightfoot: We are planning to be live in the first quarter of 2013.
2:41 p.m. Karst: Do you think this concept is transferable to other cities as well?
2:42 p.m. Lightfoot: Absolutely.
2:42 p.m. Karst: What is the reaction from the supermarkets in the city and are you getting positive energy out of that?
2:42 p.m. Lightfoot: The reaction of the supermarkets has been unbelievable. The supermarket industry recognized that they are paying more for transportation and distribution than they are for some products. That doesn’t make them feel great. They want to sell good food at good prices to their customers, and they realize that the length and complexity of some of the supply chains are making it so they are not selling good food at prices.