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Why growing lettuce in New York City is a growing business

October 1, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
In cities like New York and across the river in Newark, rooftops and abandoned buildings are underutilized pieces of real estate now being turned into agricultural operations. Can these urban farms address the coming global food crisis, or are they simply a growing business in America? Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The very term urban farming sounds like a paradox, or a misnomer at the very least. But it is a real business and movement, albeit a small one, that you can find in industrial greenhouses in a number of cities around the country.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, headed to Brooklyn, where the practice is growing, to find out more about what’s behind it and whether it can be scaled up.

It’s part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

PAUL SOLMAN: On a rooftop in Brooklyn, one fresh answer to an age-old problem: how to feed the world.

VIRAJ PURI, Co-Founder, Gotham Greens: This greenhouse that we’re standing in is 20,000-square feet, so about half of an acre.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, there’s basil over there. Is that basil?

VIRAJ PURI: That’s correct. That’s basil. This is a medley of, a blend of many lettuce varieties.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lettuces, spices, tomatoes, all being grown on a rooftop in Brooklyn by Viraj Puri’s urban ag startup Gotham Greens. Puri says his hydroponic plot produces 20 times the yield per square foot of old-fashioned farmland.

But growing lettuce in New York City?

VIRAJ PURI: Real estate is extremely expensive in New York City. There’s not a lot of arable land. There’s not a lot of open space.

But what we found is that rooftops are a vastly underutilized resource. We found it is an opportunity to monetize rooftops for building owners who weren’t using them for anything.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, the demand for fresh fruit that hasn’t had to be shipped from California, Mexico or even further afield is also an opportunity to sell to consumers who want to eat locally, the locavores.

VIRAJ PURI: Locavorism, as it’s known, it’s certainly a growing trend. And I believe it’s not just because people want food that’s grown closer to them. That’s a big part of it, but it’s what that represents. It represents spending dollars closer to home. It represents artisanal, small-batch, craft manufacturing, and not large, anonymous agribusiness.

PAUL SOLMAN: And this urban farm grows produce that doesn’t travel food miles, but merely food footsteps, going farm to shelf at the Whole Foods market downstairs.

The produce is more expensive to grow, given that indoor hydroponics depends on artificial light and must import all its water and nutrients. The pests come of their own volition.

VIRAJ PURI: Despite us being on a rooftop in an urban area, those aphids and thrips make it in here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Aphids and thrips?

VIRAJ PURI: That’s correct, aphids and thrips.

So, we will actually release predator insects in the greenhouse that will prey on the bad insects. And we do that on a weekly basis. We create a little insect warfare here in the greenhouse.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, literally behind me while I’m talking to you, and behind you, for that matter, there’s little predator insects eating little aphids?

VIRAJ PURI: Yes, indeed. They’re amongst our most valuable team members.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, across the Hudson River, in de-industrialized Newark, New Jersey, empty buildings are being similarly deployed.

So, this is a farm and there is going to be more acreage soon?

DAVID ROSENBERG, Co-Founder, AeroFarms: So, these systems are 20-feet high. We are now building them that are 36-feet high. This is 80-feet long. So, now imagine these 36-high, 80-feet-long and 35 of these stacks.

PAUL SOLMAN: In an abandoned paint ball and laser tag facility, AeroFarms is cultivating tray upon tray of leafy greens, the equivalent of 10 acres’ worth down on the farm, and is building 70,000 more square feet in Newark and beyond, no sun, no soil, just an occasional beard net if you get too close to the merchandise.

I’m wearing this because we don’t want any mustache hair in the kale.

DAVID ROSENBERG: Yes. It’s just an extra precaution to make sure there’s reduced risk of food contamination. I shaved. If I didn’t shave for 24 hours, I would wear a beard net as well.

PAUL SOLMAN: But if some of the concerns seem trivial, the overall purpose of addressing a world food crisis is obviously not.

And AeroFarms co-founder David Rosenberg warns:

DAVID ROSENBERG: The food crisis is already here. Some people tribute the Arab spring and the catalyst of that to a sharp increase in the price of wheat.

PAUL SOLMAN: How much of a contribution to the solution is farming like yours?

DAVID ROSENBERG: It definitely has a place. Whether it’s 5 percent, 10 percent, 50 percent, it’s hard to say. It depends how fast it’s adopted.

PAUL SOLMAN: Rosenberg intends that to be as fast as possible. And he has sparked interest from investors the world over, including China’s immense sovereign wealth fund and one of Britain’s most prominent investment trusts, both touring AeroFarms the day we were there.

And so those folks are thinking about investing or are going to invest in what you’re doing here and abroad?


PAUL SOLMAN: So, are there going to be facilities like this in China? Are there already?

DAVID ROSENBERG: Eventually, the vision is to build these farms all over China.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what’s the key to the technology? At AeroFarms’ R&D facility, a former disco, marketing director Marc Oshima explains.

MARC OSHIMA, Co-Founder, AeroFarms: AeroFarms, aero meaning growing with aeroponics or misting the roots with nutrients. It’s much more efficient than hydroponics. It’s much more effective in terms of delivering the nutrients and less water.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the little roots are like hanging in the air, as opposed to in the soil.

MARC OSHIMA: What makes us unique is our growing medium. We actually have a patent around our growing medium, which is cloth.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the cloth is made of what?

MARC OSHIMA: Our proprietary growing cloth is made out of 100 percent recycled plastic. Each one of our growing cloths is made out of 26 bottles that we’re taking out of the waste stream.

PAUL SOLMAN: And this is known about vertical farming, or verticulture.

MARC OSHIMA: When we think about vertical farming, we think about how many vertical beds of growing can we get in any kind of space. It’s about that productivity per square foot. We’re growing a wide range of different leafy greens, red komatsuna. We have the green arugula. We have Pak Choi. We have Ruby Streaks mustard greens.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, you just…

MARC OSHIMA: Enjoy it. That’s one of the great things, ready to eat here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, kind of mustardy. And the arugula? This isn’t your own proprietary arugula, is it?

MARC OSHIMA: It’s our proprietary growing algorithm, our recipe on dialing in on that flavor.

PAUL SOLMAN: And speaking of growing, like AeroFarms, Gotham Greens is as well.

It’s now running two other urban farms in New York, including a brand-new rooftop greenhouse in Queens three times the size of the one above Whole Foods, and they will soon be opening a rooftop in Chicago.

But there is a limit to how big you can be. Right? I mean, you can’t become the next Cargill or General Mills or something, right?

VIRAJ PURI: Perhaps one day. The sky is the limit when it comes to agriculture.

PAUL SOLMAN: But hold on says, agricultural economist Jerry Nelson, there is a global food crisis in the making, he thinks, but as things stand, the world won’t be fed by hydroponics alone.

GERALD NELSON, University of Illinois: You are going to have some expenses that you don’t have when you’re growing vegetables in the countryside.

You want to go to grow lights, then you have got big expenses for electricity, you have got to have clean water. And if you’re talking about doing this in Delhi or Nairobi, the question is, where are you going to get the right amount of clean water?

PAUL SOLMAN: So, no, indoor farming may not be the answer to the world’s food needs, but it’s doing good and growing business in urban America.

This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, now trying to eat all the local leafy greens I can find when not reporting for the PBS NewsHour.