Viraj Puri climbs three floors of a gritty industrial building in Brooklyn to the daily grind of his early-stage start-up--negotiating deals with big customers, keeping up with new technology, meeting with investors and making plans to expand. But Puri's 20 employees aren't trying to build the next big social-media or clean-energy company. Instead, on a rooftop in the Greenpoint neighborhood, they run a small urban farm, Gotham Greens, a sleek and sunny oasis of leafy lettuces and herbs.
At the company's 15,000-sq.-ft. hydroponic greenhouse Gotham Greens grows plants in mineral-infused water instead of dirt, using software that closely controls temperature, irrigation and nutrients. The result, Puri says, is better-tasting, faster-growing crops that can be harvested year-round to satisfy New Yorkers' voracious appetite for locally grown produce. "We offer the city's retailers and restaurants volume and consistency, which is difficult to get with local, highly perishable vegetables," says Puri. "We can't keep up with the demand for our produce, which is a good problem to have."
Puri isn't the only entrepreneur trying to turn local agriculture, a dirt-and-worms labor of love, into a streamlined business. Energy costs are rising, and more Americans are paying attention to the provenance of their food. As a result, sales of local foods in the U.S., whether through restaurants, grocery stores, farmers' markets or farm-share deliveries, were projected to reach $7 billion in 2011, up from $4.8 billion in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The definition of local food is fuzzy. The USDA defines local as products sold within 400 miles of their origin or in the state in which they are produced, but foodies, farmers and grocery stores all have different ideas about what qualifies.
Even by a broad definition, local food adds up to only 1% of the food we eat, but the steady shift in consumer tastes, along with efforts by big retailers to promote all things humane and healthy, is building a new local-food ecosystem. Farmers' markets, once common only in the quaint Northeast and crunchy West Coast, have spread throughout the country. The average American today lives within 13 miles of a farmers' market. Chipotle, the popular gourmet burrito chain, has doubled its locally sourced produce since 2010, to 10 million pounds a year. About one-quarter of the produce sold at Whole Foods comes from local farmers, up 55% from seven years ago, when the company made a push to boost its local sourcing. "There is a renaissance happening in being connected to your food and its producer, the likes of which we haven't seen since before World War II," says Walter Robb, a co-CEO of Whole Foods. "It's changing the face of agriculture. The distribution system has to evolve to accept the local producer."
The Next Frontier