Brighten Up the Season
by Ann Flood
Come midwinter, many of us city dwellers are craving fresh leafy salad greens typically shipped from warmer climates to local grocery stores. Until recently, many of us shrugged off as unavoidable the large carbon footprint that it takes to transport the product from another part of the country–if we considered it at all. But now, as more people become aware of eating what’s in season and available locally, the demand is being met in many urban areas, including Chicago, by entrepreneurs who are going green in a big way with alternative growing methods. Gotham Greens, a rooftop growing facility in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood, produces greens using hydroponics–a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solution and exposed to natural sunlight in a high-tech facility.
Technology regulates climate control, moderating a consistent temperature, natural light and proper irrigation 24 hours a day. Since production began in February 2016, the rooftop greenhouse has produced thousands of heads of high-quality lettuce and culinary herbs like basil in a two-acre space (approximately the size of two football fields).
Planting high-density row crops is also a technique used in hydroponic growing systems. This method has allowed Gotham Greens to produce as much lettuce as a 50-acre farm–all without soil, according to Viraj Puri, the co-founder and CEO of Gotham Greens. There’s another benefit of hydroponics, he says: “It grows twice as fast as conventional farming.”
Gotham Greens was founded in Brooklyn, New York, in 2009 by Puri and co-founders Eric Haley, who oversees the financial aspects, and Jennifer Nelkin Frymark, who heads up the agriculture operations. The three come from diverse backgrounds–Puri from sustainable architecture and renewable energy, Haley from the investment banking industry and Frymark from the study of plant biology and greenhouse system design. At the start, they shared a vision for an urban farm operation that could offer New Yorkers fresh greens year round and at competitive prices. It wasn’t long until they wanted to try a similar template in another expansive urban area: Chicago.
“The Chicago growing facility is located up one story above a soap factory, which means the floor is warm in the winter, which helps reduce heating demands,” according to Frymark, who oversees Gotham Greens’ Chicago facility. “It also uses natural sunlight during the day and heat curtains are pulled at night, which reduces the amount of air that is being heated.” Sophisticated supplemental lighting is used approximately four months out of the year when there is less sunlight, says Frymark. Cooling equipment and exhaust fans are deployed when needed during the summer months.
Gotham Greens also uses natural, pesticide-free growing practices in the controlled environment. The use of beneficial insects is the primary defense against harmful pests, along with other hydroponic methods, eliminating the need for herbicides.
The Chicago facility cranks out 26 harvests per year–about 10 times more than a conventional farm–and employs about 50 people, mostly from the area. Gotham Greens grows approximately 15 types of greens including butterhead (known for its high quantities of vitamins A and K), arugula, bok choy and kale. It’s harvested, packed and delivered to local restaurants, retailers and consumers within hours for the freshest taste and the most nutrients. The company regularly donates excess product to the Chicago Food Depository to help feed those in need.
Approaching one year in business, Puri says the business is doing extremely well and the founders hope to expand into other Chicago neighborhoods, most likely remaining in the south side. Puri is also looking into other cities as well.
Look for collections of their greens such as Windy City Crunch and Chicago Crisp at your local specialty food store, restaurant or co-op market.
More information: gothamgreens.com