Gotham Greens: Sustainable Farming in the Big Apple
by Bruce Boyers,
Our system of factory agriculture is exacting a great toll on our planet: 40 percent of the land and 70 percent of the fresh water on Earth is devoted to the growing of food, which, in the process, creates some 30 percent of greenhouse gases. Compounding these issues is the fact that commercial produce is often transported thousands or even tens of thousands of miles to its point of sale, consuming tons of fossil fuel. It is evident that our current agricultural model is a failed experiment in search of a more sustainable solution.
In an effort to bring needed fresh produce closer to home with far greater sustainability, a movement in urban agriculture is rapidly gaining momentum. New York City, having such a large and diverse population, is a metropolis ripe for green urban agriculture and is now home to an innovative commercial operation called Gotham Greens.
“The inspiration for Gotham Greens was seeing an increasing concern about the way food is grown,” Viraj Puri, co-founder of Gotham Greens, told Calmful Living. “It’s so resource intensive in terms of land use, water use, fertilizer runoff, pesticide runoff, pesticide use—things of this nature, including long-distance food transport. People are also increasingly worried about public health concerns over food safety.”
Gotham Greens has now gone into full production and is providing much-needed locally and sustainably grown produce for the greater New York City area. “My partners and I had a vision for a local farm operation here in New York City that could provide New Yorkers—which would include restaurants, retailers and consumers—with premium quality, fresh, nutritious culinary herbs and greens, salad greens and lettuces,” Puri said. “They would be grown year round so that we could reliably and consistently supply our customers with local produce. Obviously our climate in New York doesn’t support year-round agriculture of a lot of these crops, so we thought we would try to do something in a greenhouse. A greenhouse climate allows you to potentially grow year round, at the same time protecting crops against extreme or detrimental weather events.”
Gotham Greens was founded in 2008 by Puri and Eric Haley; then in 2009 Jennifer Nelkin joined as a partner to head all greenhouse operations. Puri himself had previously developed and managed start-up enterprises in New York City, in Ladakh, India, and in Malawi, Africa, focusing on green building, renewable energy and environmental design. Haley, who is currently employed by a Manhattan-based investment bank and private equity fund, also brought business acumen to the operation. The farm know-how comes from Nelkin, who cultivated her expertise in greenhouse systems and management at the University of Arizona. In addition to greenhouse system design, her skillset includes plant nutrition and crop and pest management. She has managed greenhouses in far more extreme circumstances than New York—namely two different locations in Antarctica, providing fresh vegetables for US research scientists.
House of Greens
The Gotham Greens urban farm is located within a 15,000-square-foot state-of-the-art climate-controlled greenhouse atop the roof of a two-story building in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Beginning with leafy greens, including several lettuce varieties and a broadening assortment of culinary herbs, Gotham Greens is intent on continuing to expand its range of crops, with an immediate production goal of 100 tons annually.
The choice of a rooftop was made quite deliberately. “New York City obviously doesn’t have a lot of arable or available land, so it seemed to us that one underutilized resource was rooftops,” said Puri. “You’re seeing more and more innovative uses of the rooftops now in urban areas nationwide.”
Getting a rooftop greenhouse up and operational—especially one of this size and scope—was no mean feat. “It was extremely challenging,” Puri recalled. “I would say the biggest challenge was just having any real path to follow. There’s not a lot of precedent for what we’re doing.
“The first thing was finding a building owner who wouldn’t mind us building a greenhouse on his or her roof. We also had to find a building that met all the construction criteria, both structurally and for the obtaining of utilities. In addition there had to be access, and the evaluation of how we would get stuff up and how we would get stuff down. On top of that we had to make sure the plan would meet all zoning and building codes.”
The Gotham Greens operation, as one might imagine, represents an enormous saving in resource usage. “We employ a recirculating hydroponic technique that actually goes back and captures all irrigation for reuse,” Puri explained. “It’s the most water-efficient form of agriculture in the world. We use ten times less water than conventional agriculture. Even though we are not in an area that is susceptible to drought, we still think that it’s a great demonstration of a technology that is very water efficient.” The hydroponic growing environment is sterile as well, which eliminates the risk of pathogens—particularly important in light of the increase in foodborne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, from fresh vegetables.
Due to the hydroponic growing methods, the facility is also extremely economical with space. “We use about twenty times less land in terms of what we produce per unit area as compared to conventional agriculture,” Puri continued. “The equivalent of a conventional farm for the crops we produce would be six acres.”
Puri and his partners have seen to the frugal use of energy too. “We have 55 kilowatts in solar panels that produce electricity to help meet the electrical needs of the facility,” said Puri. “Along with that, we’ve spent a lot of effort here to design our facilities to be as energy efficient as possible. We’ve installed increased insulation in many areas; the glazing material that we selected helps insulate the greenhouse; and we’ve deployed heat curtains and heat blankets in the winter to reduce space in the greenhouse that needs to be conditioned.” Additionally, a sophisticated computer control system ensures that climate-control equipment operates efficiently to reduce resource consumption.
Perhaps the most significant saving in terms of resources is that of fossil fuels, as the distance from farm to consumer is considerably shorter. “Of course, we sharply reduce the transportation of our product and the associated carbon emissions that are caused because of that,” Puri added.
All nutrition and pest control is done naturally and sustainably, which was also one of the goals for Gotham Greens. “We utilize mineral salts that we dissolve in the water,” Puri said. “These contain minerals such as nitrogen, magnesium and potassium, along with micronutrients like selenium. In controlling pests, we mostly rely on beneficial insects; there’s a whole program in integrated pest management for which a fair bit of monitoring goes on. If we do find a pest in here, we will introduce its natural predator—for instance, we have ladybugs and lacewings to control aphids.”
It’s in the Taste
Despite all the technological advances displayed in Gotham Greens, the top priority is taste. “Flavor is our number one priority here at Gotham Greens,” Puri remarked. “We want to be known more for the flavor of our products than the fact that they’re grown in New York in a greenhouse on a rooftop, or any of that. First and foremost we want to win taste tests, which we’ve successfully done.”
Like many others concentrating on great flavor, Puri and his team have found that truly caring for the plants will result in the superiority they seek. “The biggest thing in obtaining that flavor is really taking care of our crops—making sure they have ideal growing conditions in climate, humidity, temperature, and so forth. We’re also making sure they’re getting all the nutrients that they need, along with the right amount of irrigation, the right amount of dissolved oxygen. The foremost belief is that healthy plants are going to make for tastier plants.
“And then because we are so close to our customers, we never have to harvest anything before it’s completely ready. Many conventionally grown crops have to be refrigerated and transported long distances, so they are picked early and then artificially ripened. We don’t have to do anything like that; we can harvest crops when they are at their optimal freshness, size, flavor, profile and color. We can harvest any item in the morning and have it to a supermarket or a restaurant in the afternoon.”
In addition to supplying locally grown produce, Gotham Greens contributes to the local economy by providing badly needed jobs. All staff are residents from the nearby community. As production expands, they also plan to offer their products to more local areas that have limited access to fresh produce.
They’re Buying It
In their first season, response to the availability of such crops has been outstanding. “We’re already supplying many of the supermarkets across the city, like Whole Foods Market, FreshDirect, D’Agostino, Union Market, and a handful of restaurants,” Puri reported. “Our products are selling very well, and we’re having to turn customers away. We’re going to continue adding to our variety of crops, and we’re investigating how to build a bigger greenhouse facility where we can grow an even greater diversity of crops for our customers.”
For more information on Gotham Greens, visit www.gothamgreens.com.