Urban Farmers Wrangle with Red Tape and High Costs

April 28, 2016

The rising demand for locally sourced food has placed some major cities in an awkward position. While farm-to-table eating interests many consumers in major urban centers, their location away from rural areas can sometimes make it difficult to obtain the right ingredients. To fix this supply problem, in recent years enterprising farmers have been moving into cities to cultivate their crops in unconventional places. Gotham Greens, for instance, operates four rooftop greenhouses located throughout New York City, including one that resides atop a former toy factory.

According to the company, these facilities annually produce more than 20 million heads of lettuce and other greens that are sold to local restaurants and retailers like Whole Foods. Nevertheless, not all urban farming startups have found the same success as Gotham Greens. Last year a company called BrightFarms ditched its plans for a rooftop farm in Washington, D.C., after spending ten months trying to get the proper permits for the project. Another startup, FarmedHere, ran a greenhouse in a former Chicago box factory until the company shut down for six months in order to revamp its strategy. The CEO of BrightFarms even went so far as to call city rooftop farming “a foolish endeavor” due to high operating costs and regulatory hassles.

Given these negative factors, some startups are doing what cost-conscious citizens have been doing for years: moving out of the big cities and into the suburbs. BrightFarms built a greenhouse in suburban Virginia for $8.5 million, 20 percent less than the projected price of their location in the nation’s capitol. Along with concerns about cost, flavor is also an issue for urban farmers. According to a buyer for Whole Foods, “It is more difficult for hydroponic growers to achieve the same taste as soil-grown products or herbs.” Despite these sticking points, venture capitalists continue to pour money into urban farming startups. BrightFarms has raised around $35 million from investors, comparable to Gotham Greens’ haul of $30 million. While venture capitalist interest in this industry is unlikely to cease anytime soon, the coming years may see them transition to more “suburban” farming.

 

Questions:

  1. In what ways can an urban farm benefit a local community?
  1. Should agricultural startups focus more on farming in suburban areas or within big cities?

 

Source: Ruth Simon, “Farming Gets High Tech in Bid to Offer Locally Grown Produce,” The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2016. Photo by Linda N.

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