Paul Lightfoot: The Localization of Produce

01 Jul, 2012

by Bruce Boyers

No one would likely predict that a midlife crisis would ultimately be the catalyst for a revolution in food distribution. But for Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, that’s exactly what happened.

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“I spent nearly ten years running a software company that improved the supply chains of retailers and their suppliers,” Lightfoot told Organic Connections. “I had a 60-mile commute and felt little purpose in my work. I had become a local- and nonprocessed-food zealot in my personal life, and was one of the only software CEOs who did the family food purchasing and cooking.

“I had a midlife crisis over the past several years—a great midlife crisis—and I’m still enjoying it every day. I realized that I wanted to apply my retail-supply-chain experience to doing something more meaningful, with more purpose, and in a way that would improve local food supply chains.”

Lightfoot’s own midlife crisis coincided with a sustainability crisis in our industrialized food system. As stated on the BrightFarms website, 95 percent of food sold in the US travels over 1,000 miles. Modern agriculture is the largest consumer of land and water, and is the cause of the most pollution and 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. When energy prices rise, so does the overall cost of food. In an era of acknowledged climate change, it is evident that the old system is working against us.

“The inspiration for BrightFarms grew out of our desire to grow food in the same communities where it’s being consumed,” Lightfoot said, “a desire to grow food that’s fresher, tastier, and better for the environment.”

Through BrightFarms’ unique approach to the problem, scalable local-produce production is more than theoretical. BrightFarms’ plan involves designing, financing, building and operating hydroponic greenhouses at or near supermarkets, eliminating time, distance and cost from the food supply chain. The produce being purchased by consumers is fresher and more flavorful, having been picked at its prime of ripeness. “The first way to ensure great flavor is to deliver the freshest produce possible,” Lightfoot pointed out. “Local produce tastes better. We can harvest and deliver our produce on the same day because our greenhouses are so close to our retail partners.”

The hydroponic approach also means considerable savings in growing resources. A fraction of the land and water is used, when compared to conventional farming; for example, tomatoes are grown with up to 7 times less land and 10 times less water. Minimal fertilizer is used, and there is no agricultural runoff. BrightFarms utilizes beneficial insects and integrated pest management to keep harmful pesticides out of the greenhouse.

Additionally, greenhouses employ vents, shade curtains and evaporating cooling systems to precisely control heating and cooling. Supermarkets lose a substantial amount of heat through refrigeration systems and bakery and prepared-food departments. For greenhouses located on supermarket roofs, this wasted heat can be utilized to lower greenhouse operating costs and the carbon footprint.

With the prospect of such greenhouses being situated close to supermarkets, or supermarket distribution centers, the vision of local produce being easily available and scalable for large numbers of consumers is within the grasp of reality.

Breakthrough Business Plan

The initial idea of putting greenhouses atop or local to supermarkets was met with enthusiasm—but an obvious barrier existed. “The first challenge we faced was figuring out what would work for our retail partners and what wouldn’t,” said Lightfoot. “In the development stages, we spoke to executives from a major food retailer in the New York City area. They loved the idea, but said that building a greenhouse for them wouldn’t work because they didn’t have the capital or the resources to become farmers.”

This barrier was surmounted when Lightfoot turned for inspiration to the business model utilized in another sustainable technology. “Our business model is based on the innovative model of the late Brian Robertson,” Lightfoot related. “Brian was a revolutionary and an entrepreneur. He pioneered an innovative business model putting solar power systems on rooftops. Ten years ago, building owners and tenants were unwilling to make the large upfront capital investments to put solar on their rooftops, so the solar industry was stagnant. Brian and his teammates at a rooftop solar company called SunEdison decided to sell electricity rather than solar panels. They got building owners and tenants to agree to buy the electricity for a long term at a fixed price, and then the company would use those long-term contracts to finance the construction. Brian and his team put up the capital, built the systems and operated them for the buildings—the buildings merely had to buy the electricity at fixed prices, which they wanted to do. It worked, and Brian and his colleagues spawned what is now a multibillion-dollar industry.

“At BrightFarms, we’re applying that very business model to the produce supply chain. By partnering with supermarkets, we raise the capital and build the greenhouse so that all our retailers need to do is agree to a long-term contract for fresh, delicious produce at fixed prices.”

It means a turnkey solution for food retailers. The design, finance, building and management of the greenhouse are all taken care of by BrightFarms, along with the harvesting and delivery of produce. There is no cost to the retailer—only the agreement to purchase the produce on a long-term fixed-price contract. Stores also gain from carrying fresher, more nutritious produce with a longer shelf life, and by being protected from volatile pricing, inconsistent supply, and product linked to fuel prices. Of course, it also means a drastically reduced carbon footprint for every participating retailer.

Vision to Reality

It was the revolutionary business model that elevated BrightFarms from theoretical plan into action. Several stores have now signed on. Best Yet Market’s Manhattan store is already selling produce from BrightFarms’ greenhouse in Huntington, NY. McCaffrey’s Market signed the grocery industry’s first long-term produce purchase agreement and will now have a greenhouse servicing all of their stores before the end of the year. Homeland Stores of Oklahoma City, OK, recently signed the industry’s second produce purchase agreement and will have a greenhouse at their stores in early 2013.

Probably the most remarkable of these projects currently being undertaken by BrightFarms is a partnership with Salmar Properties to construct the world’s largest rooftop farm. Slated to be located on Liberty View Industrial Plaza in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the multiacre hydroponic greenhouse will be built on 100,000 square feet of rooftop space and will be used to grow up to one million pounds of local produce per year, including lettuce, tomatoes and herbs. The redevelopment of the building, along with the installation of the rooftop farm, is part of Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to revitalize Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront.

Lightfoot is increasingly being called upon to speak and share his vision, and he recently appeared at TEDx Manhattan.

Technology

The technology being applied in BrightFarms’ greenhouses was developed by mechanical and environmental engineer Dr. Ted Caplow. “BrightFarms stands on the shoulders of Ted Caplow, visionary and pioneer in the field of rooftop sustainable greenhouse development,” Lightfoot explained. “Dr. Caplow is the founder of New York Sun Works, co-founder of BrightFarms Systems, and chairman of its successor company, BrightFarms, Inc.”

The technology developed and tested by Dr. Caplow has been carried over into BrightFarms’ greenhouses. “We grow all of our plants in controlled-environment greenhouses using the highest-quality nutrients available,” said Lightfoot. “This means that we give our plants the ideal environment to thrive in, minimizing stress and disease.

“We also consider the specific climates that our greenhouses inhabit. Our drive to build sustainable facilities that respect the natural environment—while simultaneously growing fresher, healthier produce—truly shapes our design. Each greenhouse facility will combine technologies that are the most appropriate
and sustainable for a given location. In other words, our greenhouses will be customized to each location.”

Grower training is also a vital part of the turnkey solution. “We employ world-class growers to care for our crops and train our employees. Their growing methods—and attention to plant health and nutrition—guarantees high-quality flavor.

“We’re looking for farmers who share our passion for quality produce and dedication to the environment. We grow hydroponically to conserve land and water; we need farmers who are experienced in hydroponics or excited to learn new methods.”

Poised for Growth

More and more, Lightfoot and his team are finding that, despite being part of the industrial food system for so long, supermarkets are very willing to take part in this innovation. “Our retail partners are both innovative and consumer oriented,” he said. “Consumer demand for local produce is at an all-time high. A recent Mintel study shows consumer demand for ‘local’ has surpassed demand for ‘organic.’ Our supermarket partners understand that to stay competitive they have to offer produce that’s fresher, more nutritious and more sustainable, because consumers want and deserve it.”

Many supermarket chains are supplied from large distribution centers. BrightFarms has seen their way clear to service such stores in that regard as well. “Big supermarket chains are ideal partners for BrightFarms’ business model,” Lightfoot said. “We can build greenhouses at supermarkets or distribution centers, and one greenhouse can supply enough produce for multiple stores.”

Lightfoot sees the future in terms of local growing being the complete norm. “My vision for the future includes my daughter being able to shop at her local supermarket without knowing that fresh produce used to be shipped from 3,000 miles away,” he concluded. “Ideally, the barriers between food producers and food consumers will be broken down, and local farmers will shop alongside their customers—buying quality produce they grew with loving care and respect for the environment.”

For more information about BrightFarms, visit www.brightfarms.com.

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  • sachin

    nice bussiness innovative idea

  • Mary

    What a visionary Paul is…..I can so see this moving across North America!