The Future’s Bright: BrightFarms
By Christian Mason • 2 years Ago
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By Christian Mason • 2 years Ago
We’re all aware of the problems surrounding the long haul transportation of food: CO2 emissions choking our cities and melting ice caps; local farmers struggling to compete with cheap overseas production; fruit and vegetables deep-frozen until the flavour dries up faster than Gary Glitter’s royalty cheques… Public opinion has long been swinging towards locally-sourced foods, but as always the tricky subject of cost tends to thwart good intentions. Well, the tide might just be turning. And at the vanguard of this development stands a company called BrightFarms.
Tomatoes are usually cultivated to be extra tough and low on sugar to survive the round-the-world trip to your market. They’re actually designed to be leathery and flavourless!
BrightFarms are a New York-based company that specialise in building hydroponic greenhouses on the rooftops of supermarkets and grocery stores. And they’re pushing to make the economic case for their model as strong as the moral one. The benefits seem obvious: no transportation costs; drastically-reduced CO2 emissions; jobs for local farmers (who are paid to come in and advise or grow); and delicious fresh produce. So are we witnessing the dawn of a new era?
Hard, flavourless, insipid, depressing… Just a few adjectives to describe your standard supermarket fruit or vegetable. And what’s up with those revolting green, bitter tomatoes you find these days (tomatoes as bitter as the local farmers who aren’t being given a chance to grow them)? There’s a good reason for this, and it’s largely down to the procedures involved in shipping fresh food over distance. In addition to the practice of artificially extending shelf-life and the resulting negative impact on taste and nutrition – recent reports in Australia have found some fruit taking a year to get from tree to shelf – farmers also grow their produce with half a mind on the food’s endurance. Tomatoes, for example, are usually cultivated to be extra tough and low on sugar to survive the round-the-world trip to your market. They’re actually designed to be leathery and flavourless! With a farm on your roof the need to preserve or transport fruit and vegetables obviously goes, meaning the produce ending up in store is packed to the gills with vitamins and flavour. It’s possible that the customer can find themselves munching on an apple that was picked – upstairs – just that morning.
In the UK alone 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are pumped into the atmosphere annually by vehicles delivering food to your local shops.
The environment is another likely beneficiary of BrightFarms’ approach. Currently in the UK alone 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide are pumped into the atmosphere annually by cars, planes, lorries and boats delivering food to your local shops. Any reduction to these figures has got to be welcomed. And then there are the obvious environmental advantages of utilizing hydroponics – namely the efficient use of land and water and integrated pest control.
It seems a no-brainer – surely this is the way forward? But as always we’re at the mercy of free market economics. Supply and demand is king and the majority of shoppers reluctantly sacrifice quality and conscience in the name of affordability. And who can blame them in the current climate? Equally grocers and supermarkets tend to baulk at anything that might squeeze their profit margins. If the system isn’t broken in their eyes, why fix it? For these reasons a number of urban farm projects have struggled to make an impact as the financials failed to convince big business to jump on board. BrightFarms are hoping to change all that.
“We’re not trying to change the fringes of the supply chain,” he said. “We want to change the supply chain itself.”
BrightFarms have the goal of making urban farming THE future of corporate farming, not just a niche interest of idealists and environmental activists. The big question mark remains over the financials, with BrightFarms currently reliant on tax exemptions. As a new business, in a radical new industry, the test of time has yet to be applied. Similar schemes in San Francisco have gone belly-up but BrightFarms’ CEO Paul Lightfoot remains optimistic: “If you really want to change a market you have to have a lot of capital to invest in making these changes happen. And if you want to raise a lot of capital you have to be able to provide returns on the capital.” And Lightfoot is certainly not lacking ambition: “We’re not trying to change the fringes of the supply chain,” he said. “We want to change the supply chain itself.” And they aim to do this with a unique business model – namely that the supermarkets pay nothing for their rooftop farms.
BrightFarms design, build, finance and maintain the rooftop greenhouses. The only financial obligation on the retailer is to buy their produce on fixed long-term contracts; meaning it’s a zero-risk arrangement for the retailer. The retailer also gets produce with a full shelf life (higher margins), no transportation costs, cheaper products, and an ability to hedge their bets to avoid fluctuations in food and oil pricing. And big business seems to have taken the bait, with ten supermarket chains (including five of America’s top 50) opting in. In September it was announced that a 45,000-square foot greenhouse will be constructed atop a commercial building in Roscoe Village, Chicago.
It remains to be seen how successful BrightFarms can become, but a scheme that provides jobs for local growers, aids the environment, and lowers costs for all concerned; should be cautiously applauded. And if it also means the consumer can spit out those bitter green tomatoes and replace them with explode-in-the-mouth sweetness, then so much the better.
This article was originally published in Issue 002 of HYDROMAG (November – December 2012).
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