A look inside Gotham Greens’s new high-tech indoor farming operation in Northern California
As world population increases, so does the need to find more efficient ways to increase the food supply, not to mention having to cope with extreme and unpredictable weather, drought and groundwater depletion, wildfires and a gradual decline in per capita arable land available for agriculture.
Commercial indoor farming began to emerge a few decades ago as a better way to manage vegetable growth using methods and optimized hydroponic plant feeding techniques that increase the number of annual growing cycles, according to Viraj Puri, CEO of Gotham Greens, a privately held certified B-corporation based in New York City known for its sustainable and environmentally conscious brands.
The company’s newest indoor farming greenhouse near Davis in Yolo County was completed in November 2021 and officially opened on Dec. 8. This location is close to the UC Davis campus. Gotham Greens is partnering with the university to bring more Ag-businesses to the region and to allow its greenhouse to serve as a learning center benefiting faculty as well as students studying indoor farming.
Puri, together with co-founder and Chief Financial Officer Eric Haley and Chief Greenhouse Officer Jenn Frymark, comprise the senior management team at the helm of Gotham Greens from the day the company was established in 2009.
20 harvests per year
“Using innovative soilless hydroponics growing methods, we have been able to increase output from one harvest per month to 20 harvests per year resulting higher yields as well as the ability to grow produce in all types of climate zones 365 days a year regardless of outdoor temperatures,” Puri said.
Demand for vegetables is high. The total market for salad and leafy greens in the U.S. and Canada is approximately $15 billion, according to the Nielsen’s Feb. 20, 2021, report on U.S. extended all outlet combined (xAOC) dollar sales of lettuce and pre-packaged salads.
While indoor farming currently represents a small portion of the salad/leafy greens market, Puri said Gotham Greens is growing by more than 71% annually and the indoor farming sector is growing by more than 50% year over year, far outpacing growth in the overall category (16%) as well as the organic segment (19%). When asked, the company was not willing to reveal the dollar value of its produce sold annually or revenue from sales.
From rooftops to open land
Gotham Greens built its first greenhouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in May 2011 — which the company believes was the first commercial urban rooftop greenhouse — and the second above a Whole Foods Market in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
The rooftop configuration model was replicated at two additional company locations in Chicago, Illinois, and on a former roof of an Ideal Toy Factory in Jamaica, Queens (NYC), as a way to save square footage in cities and to increase proximity to retail grocers.
The company’s fifth through eighth greenhouses were built on open land in Chicago; Edgemere, Maryland; Providence, Rhode Island and Aurora, Colorado — with the ninth greenhouse built on a 10-acre parcel near the UC Davis campus just off Interstate 80 in Solano County.
By shifting to a location strategy involving larger land parcels outside or adjacent to major cities, Gotham Greens can build larger greenhouses achieving greater yields to also serve surrounding population centers.
These sites serve as distribution hubs for delivering produce to cities and towns in the region. Puri said the company plans to continue using this hub-and-spoke model in the future when establishing its presence near other U.S. cities.
The Davis greenhouse serves local produce retailers and those throughout the state. Having nearby delivery destinations also reduce transportation and fuel expenses. This formula also reduces time to market and can extend average shelf-life freshness of its produce to three weeks, or even longer, if distances to retailers are shorter, Puri said.
Gotham Greens specializes in producing lettuce, leafy greens and herbs, including lettuce varieties such as butter, California crunch, romaine, green and red leaf along with basil.
The company also markets a branded line of salad dressings and sauces. Gotham Greens R&D group is also considering the of possibility adding microgreens and other items to its product list.
Puri said key benefits of indoor farming revolve around having control of the environment, lighting and “fertigation” hydroponics — the process of putting soluble products, such as fertilizers, water amendments and minerals (nitrogen, magnesium, phosphorus, etc.) into an irrigation system to circulate through a soilless base made using coconut coir, rockwool, peat moss or perlite.