A Bright Idea for Farming with Less Water

You would be hard pressed to find much produce being grown commercially in urban areas these days. But, if the new kid on the agricultural block has its way, a rooftop vegetable farm could be coming to a supermarket near you soon.

Inside Bright Farms' greenhouse

Inside Bright Farms’ rooftop greenhouse

While industrial-scale agriculture is capable of providing huge quantities of food cheaply, it has failed miserably when it comes to energy use/waste, water use/waste, and quality of product. Tomatoes and leafy greens are prime examples of vegetables that when grown at home with love and care and eaten shortly after harvest far outshine anything commercially available whether they’re organic or not.

The founders of BrightFarms saw a great business opportunity when they considered these issues. Where they saw farmland stretching for miles and located hundreds, if not thousands of miles from the market. They envisioned produce being grown right at the store.

Where they saw millions of cubic feet of water being lost to evaporation, waste or running off fields only to pollute waterways, they envisioned hydroponic gardens using 95% less water than conventional agriculture.

Where they saw lettuce rotting within a day of purchase or even before it could be placed on the shelf, they envisioned leafy greens picked less than 2 hours prior to sale.

Bright Farms greenhouse

Bright Farms grows fresh produce, minutes away from the grocery store shelves

And where they saw those infamous cardboard tomatoes by the millions, they envisioned vine-ripened red orbs with flavor that hearkens back to the days when homegrown and local were their sole source.

This is the vision behind BrightFarms and it’s a business model that is turning the world of industrialized, flavorless, wasteful agricultural practices on its ear.

BrightFarms gains its competitive advantage primarily through its greatly reduced use of limited resources: water, fertilizers, and fossil fuels used in production of inputs, transportation, and operation of supply chain infrastructure. Conventional agriculture is one of the largest single users of water in the U.S., and that water increasingly needs to be pumped out of declining groundwater supplies or transported great distances via aqueducts as is common in California. Climate change and its associated unpredictable weather patterns have caused water sources such as mountain snowmelt and river flow to become increasingly unreliable.

The rooftop greenhouses utilized by BrightFarms house elaborate hydroponic farming operations. These utilize a soil-free growth medium and tightly controlled water use and recirculation. Water consumption for these operations is only about 5% that of conventional farm operations. And wastewater is also reduced by 95%. Fertilizer inputs are kept to a minimum through the highly efficient hydroponic system, so waste water discharge to treatment systems is not a significant source of pollution requiring remediation.

Sustainable agricultural models like BrightFarms are the wave of the future. The company entered into its first long-term produce purchase agreement with McCaffrey’s Market in Yardley, PA. They are currently constructing their first greenhouse in Brooklyn, NY. With water supplies becoming scarcer and less reliable, and with energy costs only expected to increase, their plans to operate water conserving, environmentally friendly rooftop farms across the country makes great logistical, environmental, and business sense.

What do you think? Can Bright Farms change the way we farm?