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Above a Whole Foods Market,
A Greenhouse Grows in Brooklyn


By Mat McDermott

28 October 2013


By the end of this year, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, will witness the completion of a cutting-edge partnership in urban agriculture and retail — a 20,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse built on a Whole Foods supermarket.

Atop this newly constructed store in Gowanus, Brooklyn, Gotham Greens — a New York City-based company that grows greenhouse vegetables — plans on expanding its well established offerings of leafy greens to include tomatoes on the vine, as well as cherry and grape tomatoes. The produce will be sold at the store below and at other Whole Food markets in New York. Scheduled for completion in December, Gotham Greens says the new facility will be capable of producing 150 tons of produce each year, a significant increase over the capacity of its existing 100-ton-per-year solar-powered rooftop greenhouse in nearby Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The new facility continues the environmental ethos of Whole Foods' and Gotham Greens' current operations. All the produce grown in Gowanus will be raised without pesticides, although because the operation is hydroponic, it can’t be certified as organic. Advanced irrigation systems will enable the greenhouse to use 20 times less water than conventional farming. And then there's the significant
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Gotham Greens
Gotham Greens' existing greenhouse in Brooklyn.
reduction in food miles that comes from growing produce directly atop where it will be sold.

Michael Sinatra, Northeast public affairs manager for Whole Foods Market, told Yale Environment 360 that the store hasn’t determined what percentage of overall store produce will be grown by Gotham Greens. But he says it will be significant and notes, "We'll be shipping products to other stores in New York City from this location."

The new Brooklyn store may be the first urban rooftop greenhouse connected to a major supermarket, but it's not Whole Foods' first foray into rooftop gardening. A newly opened store in the town of Lynnfield, Massachusetts, has a 17,000-square-foot rooftop farm, supplying tomatoes, carrots, kale, chard, and herbs to the store.

Should these models prove commercially successful, it could be something that's picked up across the nation by the Austin, Texas-based chain. Sinatra points out that no two Whole Foods stores are the same, but "at Whole Foods, one store will try something out; it catches on and tends to grow that way."

A 20,000-square-foot rooftop greenhouse producing 150 tons of produce a year is, of course, a miniscule percentage of the food consumed in the Gowanus neighborhood, let alone in Brooklyn or all of New York City. But the new venture demonstrates the growth potential in rooftop and urban farming. "If it's successful, there's potential to roll out this model to other urban areas," Gotham Greens' co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri recently told Edible Brooklyn.

Founded in 2008, Gotham Greens — which grows products ranging from Swiss chard, to bok choy, to arugula — has successfully demonstrated the viability of rooftop farming in New York. At the Gowanus location, Whole Foods says it plans to bring in local students to learn about greenhouses, farming, and environmental issues.

There is no lack of irony and inspiration in the fact that the Whole Foods rooftop garden will be in Gowanus, historically one of the most polluted areas of Brooklyn. The Gowanus Canal, a designated Superfund site, abuts the store. And as the canal is cleaned up — a $506 million cleanup plan was finalized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September — a new generation of urbanites will be able to experience one possible future for sustainable food production.

Mat McDermott writes about environmental issues for a variety of print and online publications, including Motherboard, Earthtechling, Hinduism Today, and Dark Rye. Previously for Yale e360, he wrote about the Vermont Sail Freight Project.

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