Whole Foods markets dot Brooklyn like homing beacons, transmitting a signal that a neighborhood now has access to unlimited varieties of kombucha and artisanal vinegars. The first Whole Foods in the borough didn’t actually arrive until 2013. It set up shop on the corner of Third and 3rd in Gowanus, a former industrial zone known for a grotesquely polluted canal — and Superfund site — that was quickly transforming into a hip neighborhood filled with expensive condos and touted pizza restaurants.
This Whole Foods had a unique feature: a 20,000 square foot greenhouse atop the roof, which was also a first for the mega-chain. The greenhouse was operated by Gotham Greens, a Brooklyn-based company founded in 2009. The experiment proved to be a massive success. Today, when you visit the Gowanus Whole Foods, you will find rows and rows of Gotham Greens products in clamshells available for sale — arugula, butterhead, red oak leaf, tropicana green leaf, and even basil — grown right above your head.
Gotham Greens is one of the many urban farming experiments to pop up over the past decade, all with the vision of transforming how America’s agricultural supply chain works. With more and more people flocking to cities, these companies are employing cutting-edge technology to ensure that the produce you eat is actually grown close to you, with an emphasis on sustainable production.
The co-founder of Gotham Greens, Viraj Puri, was working in clean tech and renewable energy when he started reading more about controlled environment farming — a fancy name for indoor growing operations where all the conditions, from oxygen levels to light to water, are carefully monitored.
He saw the practice adopted in smaller countries like the Netherlands, but it had not yet moved to the United States. In Puri’s mind, though, the US served to benefit immensely from the practice. Over 95 percent of lettuce nationally is grown in California and Arizona. Shipping it to other parts of the country is not only costly, but affects the quality and nutritional value of the greens. Puri had the idea of building greenhouses near cities across the country. “It allows one to grow and deliver a much fresher and better tasting product,” he said.
As an added bonus, the greenhouses would also use drastically less land and chemical inputs. Gotham Greens adopted a hydroponics model, which means they grow plants, without soil, in trays that receive a constant stream of nutrient-rich water. They are able to capture the water for reuse, enabling them to use 95 percent less water than conventional farming. Because the farms are entirely indoors, Puri could also borrow from his background in clean tech to design the locations, which use 100 percent renewable electricity to power all the cooling and heating systems. According to Puri, as a result, Gotham Greens farms are able to have 30 times the production per acre than a traditional farm.
It seems like such a common sense progression of technology, I asked Puri why he thought more companies had not moved into space by the time they got started. “I mean this with no sort of hubris,” he told me, “but maybe no one else had thought of it.”
In the early 2000s, there was a growing movement of consumers becoming more sensitive to dynamics around foodways and agriculture, as well as an increased popularity of locally grown fruit and vegetables in urban areas: think farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants. Puri said that he noticed a visible shift in people gravitating toward meat, dairy, seafood, and produce that were grown in more sustainable ways.
Consumers started to want a story — to know how something was grown, where it was grown, and when it was grown. Gotham Greens was able to tell their customers that the greens they were eating were grown a few miles away and harvested within the last day. “We were able to capture the zeitgeist of the moment,” Puri said.
Gotham Greens first started selling produce in New York City in 2011, and the Whole Foods greenhouse location opened a couple years later. Today, they have farms in or adjacent to urban areas all across the country: Chicago, Providence, Baltimore, Denver, and Northern California, as well as additional two in New York City for good measure.
When choosing locations, Puri said that Gotham Greens prioritizes revitalization areas. This is what drew them to the Gowanus canal area. Another farm they opened in neighboring Queens is housed in a dilapidated building that used to make the Teddy Bear and the Rubik’s Cube. In Providence, their farm is the former abandoned General Electric light bulb factory. The Baltimore and Chicago locations are both converted from former steel factories, and the Denver site is built on the former runway of the old airport. “All our projects represent this kind of adaptive reuse of urban areas for green, sustainable food production,” Puri told me.
This is also a central goal of one of Gotham Greens’ competitors, Bowery Farming. It is estimated that over 80 percent of the US population lives in urban areas — a figure that is quickly growing and will likely reach 90 percent by 2050. For Julia Cohen, the head of commercial product and innovation at Bowery, this shift is redefining how the country should approach farming. “Putting these indoor farms close to the biggest cities, you get not only the cities, but also the surrounding areas,” she told me. “A local, regional approach will benefit the majority of the population in the US.”
Gotham Greens and Bowery Farming both function more like tech companies than agriculture operations, using software and hardware to control their entire process. They also both have raised substantial venture capital funding from traditional tech investors: Gotham Greens has raised around $125 million, and Bowery Farming more than $172 million.
For Bowery, that funding is necessary to build what they view as the future of agriculture: one that centers buzzy technologies like machine learning and computer vision. “Innovation is really at the core of who we are,” Cohen said. “It’s part of our DNA.”
Although these terms seem intimidating, they are more approachable when you break down how they actually work. While Gotham Greens relies on greenhouses for their grow operations, Bowery Farming uses completely enclosed indoor farms. Because there is no glass, their staff can fully control every variable, including levels of light, no matter the season or weather outside.
To maintain such granular detail, Bowery built a proprietary operating system called BoweryOS that monitors millions of points of data. This is where the machine learning and computer vision comes in. Cohen said that traditional agriculture builds off of thousands of years of knowledge, so they needed to catch up by using software. BoweryOS can take all of this data input to measure how variables, such as carbon dioxide level or light levels, affect flavor and shelf life.
By tracking everything, Bowery can trace properties in their greens directly to the growing conditions. Cohen gave me the example of nasal pungency, which is associated with spiciness. They may want to amp that up in arugula but tone it down in butterhead. Through the tech, Bowery technicians can figure out how to do that, such as learning how the amount of water a plant receives affects its spice level. Bowery has a curated list of 42 attributes that they developed in conjunction with sensory science experts to constantly improve their products.
For both Gotham Greens and Bowery Farming, the goal is not only to produce more sustainable produce, but to change the relationship between consumers and agriculture. When people walk through the grocery store, they see thousands of options of what to buy, often with very little information guiding their decisions. Companies like Gotham and Bowery are trying to simplify that process a bit: You can read their stories on the back of the containers and know everything about the full life cycles of the products. Perhaps more importantly, they taste fantastic and are affordable. “Access is really important,” said Cohen. “We’re making sure we’re building a business model that allows us to democratize access to fresh food.
Puri from Gotham Greens made clear that indoor farming will never be the sole option. “I don’t think it’s this panacea or silver bullet,” he told me. For now, both companies are restricted to greens and herbs, but they are experimenting with other crops that are traditionally grown in greenhouses, such as strawberries and cucumbers.
Their progress since the early days of indoor farming is undeniable, though. Bowery now grows more than 75,000 crops each year, which equals 5.5 tons of produce per day or 20 million clamshells each year — the equivalent of growing produce on 5 million square feet of traditional farmland.
For Puri, having one of Gotham Greens’ first farms being on top of a Whole Foods was more about the symbol than the practicality (although, of course, having a supply chain of 100 vertical feet is always advantageous). As he told me, “What better way to tell the story of local farming than to actually put the farm on top of the grocery store where people are buying the produce.”