Indoor Farms Thrive in Covid Era

Last month, Bloomberg writer Deena Shanker reported that, “By Saturday, March 14, even before Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the shutdown of all in-restaurant dining in New York City the next night, Viraj Puri, chief executive officer of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based indoor urban farming company Gotham Greens, found his business had essentially changed overnight.

“His major restaurant customers were suspending all orders ‘until further notice,’ while the grocers, including Whole Foods Market, FreshDirect, and other major chains were doing the opposite, asking for huge increases in product and extra deliveries of the company’s locally grown greens and herbs. (Puri declined to share the food service-retail split for his business, but he says restaurants are the smaller piece.) ‘My phone was buzzing off the hook from the largest supermarkets, saying can you run extra trucks,’ he says. Gotham was ready—it had just opened three facilities in Baltimore, Chicago, and Providence and had another opening in Denver in May, almost tripling its production capacity. In the immediate days after the pandemic declaration, the company increased planting by more than 20%. ‘For me, it’s seed as much as you can,’ says Jenn Frymark, a managing partner who also serves as the company’s ‘chief greenhouse officer.'”

Ms. Shanker noted that, “Unlike typical field operations, with separate planting and harvesting seasons, Gotham Greens runs continual, year-round seasons in its hydroponic, urban greenhouses, often built on the sites of now defunct industrial businesses, including a former Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant in Baltimore and an old toy factory in Queens, N.Y. It focuses on such greens as butterhead lettuce, basil, and, especially since the many food-borne illness outbreaks that have come out of West Coast production, romaine lettuce. Packaged in chic 4.5-ounce plastic clamshells, the salad basics can go for more than twice the price of their direct competitors, which explains why Puri is so singularly focused on the greens market, at least for now.”

“When major farms around the country saw their food service business disappear almost overnight, many were left dumping produce and plowing it under while it was still in the fields. Puri says that Gotham, while it did donate some product that would have headed to food service, didn’t dump anything. Some of its customers, such as restaurant distributor Baldor Specialty Foods Inc. and lunch chain Just Salad, kept buying product but sold it retail,” the article said.

The Bloomberg article added that, “Startup costs for indoor farming operations can be very high, as are electricity bills, depending on the energy source, and supermarket prices often reflect that. Yet the benefits of longer shelf life, lower water use, and fewer (if any) pesticides and food-borne bacteria will continue to make these models attractive.”

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