“This tomato sucks.”
A blunt assessment, for sure, but it was the honest opinion delivered at a recent TED talk by Paul Lightfoot, the CEO of BrightFarms, as he plopped an organic tomato into his mouth.
BrightFarms, founded through the January 2011 merger of BrightFarm Systems and Better Food Solutions, offers an alternative to the traditional fresh produce supply chain. “The food that’s being sold in grocery and drug stores — we would like to change it,” Lightfoot told Drug Store News. “We want it to be healthy for people and healthy for the environment.”
BrightFarms’ model turns the supply chain on its head by designing, financing, building and managing hydroponic greenhouses that serve microregions of stores for a retailer, which then pays for the produce itself, but for the same price it would pay under a traditional model at competitive market prices. “We always want to make sure the food is consumed in the same community where it’s grown,” Lightfoot said.
The demand among consumers for fresh, locally grown produce has been developing for some time. An August 2010 survey of 1,200 U.S. consumers conducted by the Hartman Group on behalf of the Produce Marketing Association found an increased interest in seeking out locally grown produce and making purchases from farmers markets; a preference for fresh produce over other types; and the continued power of interest in health to drive consumption of fresh produce.
BrightFarms recently announced a deal to serve A&P’s stores in New York by building greenhouses in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, while another complex of greenhouses will serve Supervalu’s stores in the Minneapolis area. In theory, a contract with a retail pharmacy chain would work under a similarly decentralized model. “It definitely seems that drug stores want to be part of the solution of getting fresh produce into markets where there isn’t enough fresh produce right now,” Lightfoot said.
Most retailers that sell produce — including supermarkets, mass merchandisers and a growing number of drug stores — ultimately get it from all over the country and the world. At the TED talk, Lightfoot remarked that nearly all the lettuce sold in the United States comes from farms in California and Arizona. This type of supply chain creates a system that he called both efficient and inefficient. It’s efficient because it creates huge quantities of produce at low prices, but inefficient because that produce is grown to travel the longest possible distance without spoiling, but at the cost of flavor. Case in point, the aforementioned sucky tomato, not to mention the number of audience members who raised their hands when he asked if the best tomato they’d ever eaten had come from a supermarket: something fewer than one.
According to BrightFarms, its model also is more environmentally sustainable. In one year, the company said, a 1-acre greenhouse grows up to half a million pounds of produce and generates up to $1.5 million in sales, but also saves up to 5 million gallons of water and mitigates up to 740 pounds of CO2 emissions — owing to the much shorter distance between the source and the store — and 430 pounds of pesticides. And unlike a farm, the greenhouses can be built in urban areas.