Grocers Go ‘Ultra Local’ with Rooftop Gardens

Discussion
Aug 26, 2011
George Anderson

It’s about as local as you can get with produce — growing fruits and vegetables right on the roof of a store. That’s the idea being put forth by a firm called BrightFarms that designs, builds and operates hydroponic greenhouse farms on retailers’ rooftops.

“We call this ultra-local,” Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, told The Packer.

Crops can be grown year-round in rooftop greenhouses and are only harvested when it’s time to take them downstairs for sale. Using the rooftop method, retailers cut down on shipping costs and reduce shrink. Grocers working with BrightFarms pay nothing for the construction of the greenhouses. BrightFarms makes its money by signing long-term deals with the grocers to buy the produce grown on their rooftops.

According to a Springwise report, BrightFarms has signed letters of intent with 10 supermarkets, including five of the top 50 in the U.S. Most of the deals are with grocers on the East Coast.

Benjamin Linsley, a co-founder and the vice president of business development and public affairs at BrightFarms, told edible Manhattan, that modern farming methods require that produce is grown to be tougher to deal with long journeys. The downside is that it loses taste in the process.

According to the company, a typical one-acre greenhouse can grow up to 500,000 pounds of produce a year, generating between $1 million and $1.5 million in revenue.

Discussion Questions: Is the time right for grocers to open rooftop gardens? What are the potential repercussions for the food industry if large numbers of retailers adopt this method of sourcing produce?

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17 Comments on "Grocers Go ‘Ultra Local’ with Rooftop Gardens"


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Paula Rosenblum
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

Seems like a really complicated way to be a supermarket retailer. Maybe it’d be a better idea to offer the rooftops up to neighborhood folks who’d like to tend a garden and then let them have the food free.

David Livingston
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

I’ve always thought this was an interesting idea. Probably more of a novelty than a profit center. You would be able to grow locally some fruits and vegetables that are not always available or in season. Customers could have input on what you grow.

Rick Moss
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

I think David has it right characterizing this as a novelty. Hard to imagine the square footage could yield more than a token amount of produce for the store. But imagine the potential to create a more emotional connection with consumers by allowing tours of the garden. And for school groups? Great educational opp.

Liz Crawford
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

This is more of a marketing move than a locavore move. Customers may be lured by the charm of knowing (or visiting) the vegetables in their salads are grown on the roof. I predict this is a fad rather than a trend.

Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
9 years 8 months ago

The idea becomes really compelling when we begin to think of the possibilities of an entire city of roofs becoming green-houses. Think of the potential reduction in transport emissions by growing food within the city.

It also potentially gives retailers in high ethnic markets to grow food specific to the local culture.

Brilliant!

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
9 years 8 months ago

There is always room for practical new ideas in stores such rooftop gardens where customers could vote for what is produced in season, or alternate uses of the roof in non-growing seasons, fitness centers and other innovations. The unanswered question is will they produce steady new sales and increased profits. Let’s wait and see what BrightFarms can deliver.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

This was tried by Fiesta Supermarkets in Houston more than 20 years ago. Total failure. Great gimmick but once the novelty wore off. No one seemed to be interested.

Ben Ball
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

The idea is intriguing. My first reaction was “…only if good grocers make good farmers,” but this idea of outsourcing ostensibly takes that out of the picture. Still, I’m skeptical of the average consumer (or more to the point — produce manager) being willing to accept the variability that comes with onsite production.

Here’s an alternative idea — counter intuitive as it may be. What if grocers allowed local patrons to put in “community gardens” on those same rooftops? Even without the expense of hydroponics, most areas have a 6 month growing season or more.

Would it make sense for a store that sells food to let customers grow their own — right on the premises? I think it might. Consider the PR and loyalty value that would come from providing such a selfless community service. Ridiculous liability issues notwithstanding of course.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

Paula and Ben have good suggestions about community links as does Rick with his education-related suggestions. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly sensible plan from a profitability perspective but an excellent one for PR and goodwill. Or, dare I say it, corporate social responsibility?

Max Goldberg
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

This may appeal to some consumers, especially if retailers can keep these gardens organic and offer the produce at a competitive price. Otherwise, it seems a bit faddish. Are retailers really going to make a commitment to operate a small farm on their roofs?

Larry Negrich
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

First step is to show they can do this micro-initiative on a wider scale at a profit. Interesting idea but not sure it is practical or profitable. That said, I’d rather have a vegetable produced from the soil of the heartland than from the rooftop of a metropolitan grocer. However, good taste could alter that.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

I got a smile on my face when I read this article thinking of our local Publix manager on the roof growing his garden. Then reality set in, knowing he is not the one to do this. I see it as a fad with no long shelf life.

I agree with Paula’s thought of letting the neighborhood folks do this. Again, it will only be a short shelf life project for them too.

Anne Howe
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

I am in the midst of exploring a unique urban farming plan with a group of people in Charleston, SC that would efficiently serve and support the multitude of restaurant chefs in this fine culinary mecca.

And while I’m a retail supporter at heart, I tend to agree with the notion that most major food retailers are not really set up to succeed with rooftop farming to serve shoppers with any kind of scale.

I believe the service model that builds and supports and urban or rooftop farming is better for consumers without major retailers in the middle.

Stan Barrett
Guest
Stan Barrett
9 years 8 months ago

Restaurant operators are already doing this both on rooftops and in abandoned/unused lots. See story from Fast Company. Restaurants are probably better positioned since they are usually growing for their own use, but this idea could work in underused parking lots. Maybe they can partner with their dairy supplier.

Eliott Olson
Guest
Eliott Olson
9 years 8 months ago

Great idea. With food shortages we need every piece of veggies we can get. More green and moist, less hot roof will help climate change too.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
9 years 8 months ago

This is a cute idea, but unsustainable. BTW, were you familiar with Liz Crawford’s use of the word, “locavore?” I wasn’t, I think it’s cool, and I just added it to my spellcheck dictionary. Wiki also calls it “food patriotism.” Stand up and salute! But don’t collapse the store’s roof in doing so. This seems like a Stew Leonard’s application, or maybe Whole Foods.

Local, off-roof sourcing will always be better, and if a supermarket wants to own and brand local suppliers, so much the better. What a great way to be a part of the community!

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
9 years 8 months ago

I question what areas of the country this would really work for,on a rooftop of a supermarket. Would the effort be environmentally beneficial or would there be too much pollution in certain areas? And what supermarkets would really be this committed anyway?

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