Will Empty Malls Become the Next Local Farms?

Each morning, 365 days per year, Gotham Greens harvests, packs and delivers arugula, butter lettuce, and basil to the coolers of the vegetable aisle at the Gowanus Brooklyn Whole Foods. The process is complete in less than an hour. The “food miles” involve an elevator and a few yards. For a city grocery store, produce can’t get fresher or more local than from this rooftop farm.

Urban farms are cropping up on rooftops, in parking lots, even in an abandoned laser tag arena. When urban futurists, plant scientists and farmers get together, the result is fresh hyper-local hydroponic greens. Is it the future or just a fad?

Urban farming, such as community gardens and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA), like hydroponics, aren’t new. but in the last few years, VC funding and technology have fertilized the farm-to-table movement and new farming concepts are growing wildly in urban jungles.

Sustainability activist and urban farming pioneer, Viraj Puri, launched Gotham Greens with one Brooklyn rooftop in 2010 as the first commercial-scale greenhouse facility in New York. The three clean-energy powered, climate-controlled urban rooftop greenhouses—two in Brooklyn and one in Chicago—produce consistent pesticide-free greens and herbs year round to sell to hundreds of supermarkets and restaurants.

Nourished with natural sunlight, not only do they use less land and water and have lower transportation impact, but because they are fresher—like minutes-old fresher—the greens are less likely to spoil or shrink on the trip or the store shelves than greens sent from California or Mexico.

Rooftops farms in Brooklyn aren’t all enclosed. Brooklyn Grange’s 2.5 acres still uses soil and sunlight, and sells 50,000 pounds of organically-cultivated seasonal produce a year to restaurants and CSAs. It’s a lower tech business–more like traditional farming—in an unusual urban space.

Across two rivers and on the other end of the spectrum is AeroFarms in Newark, NJ that takes future-tech farming to new heights, retrofitting retail outlets, an abandoned steel mill, a nightclub and an old paintball arena with their vertical farms. AeroFarm’s “precision farming” involves stacking growing containers of greens seven-high and nourishing them with LED lighting and an “aeroponic” solution to maximize yield and nutrition without regard to weather or seasons.

For now, AeroFarms sells to local brick and mortar stores as well as east-coast home-delivery service Fresh Direct. AeroFarms marketing manager Alina Zolotareva tells me they hope to expand worldwide—she calls it “farming locally, globally.” With $130 million investment, they have the backers to try.

There’s a lot of green going into soil-less sunlight-free growing methods. Plenty, another indoor farming operation, has received $200 million. Their technology is similar to Freight Farms, a company that transforms up-cycled 40-foot shipping containers into modular “plug and play” farms complete with LED lights and hydroponic watering systems and remote monitoring—A.K.A. the Leafy Green Machine.

But is replacing all-natural sunshine with artificial lights really saving energy?

In a parking lot outside the old Pfizer factory, now an office building packed with food-entrepreneurs, is a line-up of Freight Farms containers. These are run by Square Roots, an accelerator, cultivating young food entrepreneurs, run by Kimbal Musk (Yes, Elon’s brother) mentored, among others, by Puri.

Twenty-something Jonathan Bernard is the next wave of container farmer. He’s finishing his immersion with Square Roots and designing a business plan and a new sort of indoor CEA container with his partner. They’re hoping to hatch a way to get what he insists are the best-tasting greens closer to consumers, “If you can get greens to the customer within an hour of harvest, it’s game changing.”

After Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, the fresh food landscape is shifting fast. For now, at least with greens, the next route from farm-to-table may be over our heads.