A shorter path from farm to table

Paul Lightfoot Hero

Putting greenhouse farms near big city supermarkets should be the next local food movement, according to BrightFarms founder Paul Lightfoot.

Paul Lightfoot
Paul Lightfoot

Paul Lightfoot’s personalized license plate says it all: EFISHENT. It’s a quality he honed when the former retail software developer helped very large corporations eliminate waste, time and energy in their supply chains.

We’re 90 percent more efficient in our water use than irrigated fields in California or Arizona.”
— Paul Lightfoot

Lightfoot is also a self-described zealot for how he eats and feeds his family, insisting on fresh foods and a mostly vegetarian diet. So it may be no surprise that his new venture, BrightFarms, is a perfect combination of his two passions. BrightFarms grows leafy greens, tomatoes and herbs in efficient hydroponic systems located in greenhouses in or near urban areas, and then sells directly to local supermarkets under long-term purchase agreements that feature fixed prices and minimum volume commitments—an idea he borrowed from the renewable energy industry. With this system, the company is able to bring fresh produce directly to urban areas and use less water and land than the conventional growing approach, with its highly centralized production in California and Arizona.

Lightfoot’s idea has already become profitable, with a 56,000-square-foot flagship operation that opened in 2013 in Bucks County, Pa., supplying produce to McCaffrey’s, an upscale supermarket chain with locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. A larger, commercial-scale 120,000-square-foot greenhouse is now under construction in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood. Other greenhouses are in the works for Oklahoma City, Kansas City, St. Louis and New York City.

And Lightfoot isn’t alone in singing the praises of sustainable produce grown near urban centers. Jim Lugg, a former executive for Fresh Express/Chiquita Brands International Inc. who successfully developed the bagged lettuce market, recently told an audience at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Foods Institute: “In the future, we may be moving towards enclosed spaces where you can control light and temperature and external contaminants. My fantasy is that at the edge of every city you’d have a seven-story building with a glass front, like Baskin-Robbins, where you could go in and order greens that were just harvested upstairs,” adds Lugg, who now consults for BrightFarms.

Cutting time, distance and costs

To understand just how efficient the new BrightFarms approach is, consider the journey that typical salad greens take before they meet your fork. The average head of lettuce starts its life in either the water-starved valley of Salinas, Calif., or in Yuma, Ariz. There, it is planted, irrigated, harvested and then put on a truck. Before it reaches its final destination, the lettuce races across the continent and travels an average of 2,000 miles. That’s a lot of miles. It’s also a lot of energy being used to move a food product that is essentially water, says Lightfoot, plus a lot of time for spoilage to occur and for the loss of nutrients and flavor.

By blending his business skills with his love of fresh, sustainable garden produce, Lightfoot has cut time, distance and costs from the produce supply chain through BrightFarms’ innovative growing methods, including automatized planting and irrigation. The greens grow in soil-less hydroponic systems, which improves growing efficiency while being land and water efficient, says Lightfoot. And the water is supplied by rainfall and captured in a closed-loop system so that much less is used than with a conventional vegetable farm. BrightFarms’ tomatoes, for example, need up to 25 times less water and greens up to seven times less water, he says.

In addition, hydroponics requires only a tenth of the land area as conventional systems, and because the greenhouses are in urban areas, each one is designed to conserve land and eliminate agricultural runoff into rivers and streams, says Lightfoot. “We’re 90 percent more efficient in our water use than irrigated fields in California or Arizona,” he says. The systems also use natural defenses like lady bugs to control insects, and bees to pollinate the tomatoes.

Beyond boosting efficiency, BrightFarms has been able to more quickly adapt its offerings to the season by changing the kinds of greens it offers customers, providing different lettuce varieties or varying the leaf maturity of greens. “Last spring we added watercress to our spring mix at the request of customers. That change took four weeks—not six weeks, the industry average,” Lightfoot says. “At the request of customers, as the year went on, we added more reds into the spring mix and deeper greens.”

Boosting food system resiliency

BrightFarms is expanding rapidly into new urban areas, and Lightfoot says the concept could also be exported outside the United States because his greenhouse facilities adapt their technologies to the most appropriate sustainable design for each location. Making fresh, local food easily available, he says, is part of building a resilient food system with a controlled environment—something he thinks will become increasingly important in the coming decades.

In fact, Lightfoot says creating a resilient food system to withstand climate change will be one of the biggest challenges of the future. “I think that global warming is causing disruption everywhere with extreme events,” he says. “But part of what it will do will ruin certain areas for [food] production. As it happens, resiliency will be important. If you are exposed or vulnerable to water shortages, you are not resilient.”

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and writer based in Maryland. She reports on food, the environment and sustainable business for publications such as Slate, Scientific American, Nature, Yale e360, and The Guardian. She is a fellow for socio-environmental understanding at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (www.sesync.org) in Annapolis, Md.

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