Millions in seed funds have New Yorkers going back to the soil.
When Whole Foods debuts its long-awaited Brooklyn location in the Gowanus neighborhood this year, it will boast another first—a commercial-scale rooftop farm. The 20,000-square-foot greenhouse facility, operated by local grower Gotham Greens, will produce the Butterhead lettuce, tomatoes and herbs that consumers will find downstairs in the vegetable aisle.
"Our climate-controlled greenhouse can grow 365 days of the year," said Gotham Greens Chief Executive Viraj Puri, noting that the produce from the company's existing Greenpoint, Brooklyn, facility sells at more than 30 local establishments—most of them supermarkets. "We can do the volume and consistency and reliability that big chains require."
In a mere few years, urban agriculture has moved beyond its offbeat roots into a viable business model, attractive to grocers from Whole Foods to A&P. Early city-farming pioneers such as Gotham Greens, which began three years ago, and Brooklyn Grange Farm, another three-year-old venture, are busy expanding their chard and spinach operations by the acre, while the city is reviewing proposals for a farm at Hunts Point in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, city and state governments are recognizing the industry for its potential to improve the environment and create jobs—and are providing the seed money to help it grow. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection and New York State Energy, Research & Development Authority have both awarded grants to urban farms for expansion, and in June, the city's Housing Authority established a one-acre farm at a housing project in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Restaurants are also joining the fray, launching operations literally from the ground up.
"Cities are beginning to realize urban agriculture is much more than growing tomatoes and kale," said Nevin Cohen, assistant professor of environmental studies at the New School. "It's beneficial as an ecological business and for the social benefits that accrue from growing food in the city."
Of course, maintaining a farm in the city isn't as easy as planting seedlings in the dirt, and not all ventures are profitable. The cost of starting a greenhouse to produce fresh produce year-round can be enormous. BrightFarms, which finances, builds and operates such ventures, is spending about $4 million to construct a 100,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse on a roof in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that is scheduled to open early next year.
Fortunately for the Manhattan-based company, which started as a nonprofit in 2006 before evolving into a farm operator working with supermarkets a few years ago, it has raised $13 million in financing from investors including NGEN Partners and Emil Capital Partners. The company, which is focused on growth and on rolling out projects nationwide, is not yet profitable, said Chief Executive Paul Lightfoot. Though the venture-capital community is betting on his firm, other startups might not have as much luck.
"The expenses are huge," said Michael Levenston, who runs City Farmer, a Vancouver, Canada-based site focused on urban agriculture. "That is the million-dollar question for everybody right now: Are you going to survive as a business?"
Urban agriculture has been around for centuries, gaining steam with residents in New York City during the Depression and waning in the mid-20th century as city dwellers decamped for the suburbs.
In the past few years, however, the movement has skyrocketed in popularity and become a more corporate affair. After the recession, laid-off workers and college graduates looking for new and innovative jobs turned to the industry as a way to capitalize on the locavore food movement, which has also seen a steady rise.
"In the past four to five years, there has been huge growth, particularly in New York," said Mr. Cohen.
Meanwhile, real estate opportunities are ripe for the picking. There are nearly 5,000 acres of vacant land in New York City suitable for farming—the equivalent of six times the area of Central Park—as well as 1,000 acres of Housing Authority and park space, according to a recent study conducted by Columbia University's Urban Design Lab. The study estimated there are roughly another 4,000 acres of potentially usable rooftop space.
Indeed, the city is taking advantage. In addition to the Red Hook farm, four other farms are planned to launch on Housing Authority property by next summer. The Red Hook project, where collards, kale, broccoli and blueberries are now planted, is designed to provide 18- to 24-year-olds with new skills for the workforce.
"The farm itself is a training farm designed to help engage young men and women in agricultural activities and help them line up careers in urban agriculture," explained Ian Marvy, executive director of Added Value, a nonprofit partner on the project.
In addition to its career-development potential, urban farming offers valuable infrastructure remedies, as local governments are discovering.
Two years ago, the city invested $600,000 to expand Brooklyn Grange beyond its Long Island City, Queens, farm into the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as part of its green infrastructure plan. Located on the roof, the farm, which was founded by industrial engineer Ben Flanner, captures storm water, slowing down flooding on the ground level. This winter, Brooklyn Grange will construct a business incubator and a building for the homeless in the South Bronx in conjunction with the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp. Both projects will include green roofs with gardens.
"They will make an important environmental impact in terms of air-quality improvement and storm-water retention," said Gwen Schantz, Brooklyn Grange's chief operating officer.
Similarly, Gotham Greens, which Mr. Puri said is profitable, is partly financed by a $400,000 grant from NYSERDA. Mr. Puri declined to provide revenue figures.
These ventures also provide commercial supermarkets with valuable marketing potential. Whole Foods, for example, labels its Gotham Greens with large "local" stickers. Though the packages of lettuce are priced a penny more than organic brands grown farther away, consumers are still clamoring to buy them, especially since their shelf life exceeds that of the competition, said a spokesman for the Austin, Texas-based supermarket chain.
"It doesn't have to be trucked thousands of miles from around the country like some other items," he said. "There are a lot of reasons why it's ideal."
The Gowanus store is expected to open in late fall. If the model proves successful, it will be repeated at other locations.
Restaurants also see the potential in local growing. Italian eatery Rosemary's opened last year on the Lower East Side with a garden upstairs for its produce. Riverpark, the Murray Hill-based restaurant from Tom Colicchio, recently relocated its 10,000-square-foot farm to the plaza next door after work resumed on the stalled construction site where it initially planted roots. Last year, the farm produced more than 5,000 pounds of produce in the summer, and at times 100% of the vegetables on diners' plates come from the farm, said chef Sisha Ortúzar.
Mr. Ortúzar reports a spike in interest not just from visitors, who like to tour the grounds, but also from other restaurants asking how they can start their own farms. Though growing his own doesn't save on food bills, the chef said it does impress diners.
"It shows how much we care about the food," he said. "If we go to this much trouble to grow our eggplant, it sends a message that we pretty much care about everything we do."
SIDEBAR: FARM-TO-TABLE SERVICE GROWS
NEW YORK FARMS are the second-largest growers of apples in the country and the fourth-biggest producers of milk, yet many city supermarkets don't sell local products.
That is slowly changing, however. Several entrepreneurs and nonprofits are working to connect farmers with grocers, chefs and consumers in the city, where there is a huge appetite for all things local. FarmersWeb, Adirondack Grazers Cooperative, Five Acre Farms, City Harvest and GrowNYC are helping farmers get their products into the Big Apple.
"Local farmers were underutilized," said Lisa Sposato, associate director of food sourcing for City Harvest, which supplies food to low-income New Yorkers and purchases below-grade produce from local farmers.
"I had no place to go with my undersized onions," said Chris Pawleski, who owns an onion farm in Goshen, N.Y. City Harvest has bought some 300,000 pounds of onions from him during the past year.
FarmersWeb, which launched about a year ago, connects some 50 farms selling 2,000 different items to restaurants, private schools and corporate dining rooms. The farmers pay a transaction fee, and the buyers pay a delivery service to get the products.
Adirondack Grazers Cooperative in Granville, N.Y., began supplying grass-fed beef on behalf of 14 cattle raisers in Vermont, New York and Massachusetts last September. Started by film producer and farm owner Sarah Teale, the cooperative counts Gramercy Tavern and Ceriello's in Grand Central Terminal Market among its customers. "We realized that what all these farmers needed was marketing and sales help," said Ms. Teale. Ordinarily, beef farmers would get about $1.25 a pound at public auctions, compared with the $3 a pound paid by city customers.
Their product is more expensive than beef from big cattle states Kansas and Texas. "The cooperative's greatest challenge is pricing," Ms. Teale said.
Indeed, the business model for connecting upstate farms with big-city customers is still being tested. In late July, Basis Farm to Chef, a farm-to-table company in Manhattan, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, having run into trouble with the distribution side of the business.