Q&A with Gotham Greens, NYC's First Hydroponic Rooftop Farm

Brooklyn-based Gotham Greens designs, builds and operates commercial scale rooftop greenhouses in urban areas. They produce pesticide-free vegetables and herbs using ecologically-sustainable methods in climate-controlled facilities. Since starting production in 2011, Gotham Greens quickly became a pioneer in the field of urban agriculture, and is now one of New York State’s leading producers of premium greenhouse-grown vegetables.

During our upcoming Sustainable Farming Certificate Program, students will tour Gotham Greens' rooftop facility at the Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn, learn about hydroponic farming, and gain insight on their innovative supply chain model. Check out our Q&A with Gotham Greens' Nicole Baum to learn more about their concept.

How was the idea for Gotham Greens born? In 2009, our co-founders Viraj Puri and Eric Haley started Gotham Greens to address the growing ecological and public health concerns surrounding conventional agriculture. At the same time, they realized there was a growing trend in the market where consumers increasingly cared about how and where their food was produced, demanding more integrity and transparency in food production. Our response was to build commercial scale greenhouses on unused rooftop space in NYC. We've chosen to use a growing method called hydroponics because it is lightweight compared to soil-based farming, while also being much more productive and ecologically sustainable. Our climate controlled greenhouses use renewable energy and recycled irrigation water to grow pesticide-free produce year-round.

What are the challenges associated with running an urban farm? In 2011, Gotham Greens built the first commercial scale rooftop greenhouse in the United States. Being a pioneer in this type of facility development meant there was little precedent and no examples to follow. Being on a rooftop means we're restricted to a smaller footprint than with traditional agriculture and many of the design and logistical challenges stem from being several stories up in the air. Architecture, engineering, permitting and construction are unique challenges that greenhouse growers typically aren’t accustomed to.

How does using a hydroponics environment effect your products? If you compare our lettuces to field grown greens, you'll notice ours are much more tender. Since they're greenhouse-grown, our plants are extremely coddled and don't have to develop a tough membrane to protect them against adverse weather conditions. The result is a softer and almost buttery green that is full of nutrition and flavor. Agriculture is the largest consumer of fresh water in the world and also the leading cause of global water pollution. Our hydroponic growing practices are extremely water efficient, using one-tenth of the amount of water used in traditional soil based practices with 20 times the yield. To put that into perspective, our half acre rooftop farm on top of Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn actually produces that of a 10 acre soil based farm!

What methods do you utilize to promote biodiversity? We're adamant about not using pesticides in our greenhouses so every week we introduce thousands of beneficial insects so that the good bugs can fight the bad ones. We also keep bumblebees in our tomato room to assist with pollination.

In terms of culinary application, what sets Gotham Greens’ produce apart from other local produce? The fact that our produce is "rooftop grown in NYC" is certainly unique and buzzworthy, but if it weren't for its quality and freshness, people wouldn't continue to buy it. All of our products are grown for flavor and we actually tailor the nutrient recipes for each of our plants to ensure we’re achieving the most nutritious products possible. Take our Blooming Brooklyn Iceberg, for example - it has all of the crunch you'd expect from its more common cousin but its crunchy stems and tender leaves are full of flavor and nutrients. Here in NYC, the majority of produce we have access to year-round comes from places like California, Florida, Mexico and even Israel. This means that by the time it reaches our plates, it's already 5-7 days old. At Gotham Greens, we're growing our leafy greens and herbs in sterile, rooftop greenhouses right here in NYC. This means we can literally harvest our produce before breakfast so customers it by lunch.

How do you envision the future of Gotham Greens? Now that we've proven our model here in NYC, we're excited to scale up and take our project on the road! This summer, we'll open our third and fourth greenhouses in Queens, NY and Chicago, IL. Here in NYC, our biggest challenge has been keeping up with the demand so we're really excited to open a 60,000 sq ft. rooftop greenhouse in Jamaica, Queens later this summer! New Yorkers can expect to find some exciting new lettuce varieties and herbs. The project in Chicago will be the 'World's Largest Rooftop Farm' at 75,000 sq ft. (roughly 2 acres), and will produce about a million pounds of fresh produce per year for the local Chicago market.  

This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.

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