Paul Lightfoot found a fresh start in fresh produce.

In 2011, Lightfoot left a secure job with a software firm to transform an experiment in sustainable urban farming into a radical new business model for bringing lettuce, tomatoes and basil to grocery stores.

BrightFarms was co-founded by Dr. Ted Caplow, a mechanical and environmental engineer, as an outgrowth of a demonstration project of sustainable urban greenhouse farming. Lightfoot recalls that when he met Caplow, BrightFarms was a greenhouse consultancy that helped develop rooftop greenhouses.

Paul Lightfoot BrightFarmsThere was more to the idea of growing food in cities, Lightfoot said. So he noodled around, developing what he calls “Sunday morning spreadsheets” of a business plan modeled after the rooftop solar panel industry. In that industry, Lightfoot explains, electric utilities agree to purchase a set amount of solar-generated electricity from the companies that invest in the installation of the panels.

“I just gave it to them,” Lightfoot says. Caplow liked the idea and invited Lightfoot to join the company as chief executive officer.

BrightFarms strikes deals with grocery stores and other retail outlets for a fixed amount of produce at a fixed price over several years.

“We’ve essentially sold all the food we grow ahead of time,” Lightfoot says.

The arrangement benefits both parties. BrightFarms has a predictable revenue stream and the certainty that makes it easier to invest millions in a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse. The retailer gets fresh produce year-round and is protected from shortages and price spikes because of weather, E. coli outbreaks and other disasters.

More importantly, Lightfoot says, it gives retailers — and their customers — a reliable source of locally grown produce.

“The demand for local food has become very powerful within the last two years,” says Lightfoot, who adds that one grocery store executive told him that locally grown is more important to customers than organic.

Hydroponic greenhouse farming uses less land and water than traditional farming, Lightfoot notes. BrightFarms’ greenhouses use up to 25 times less water for tomatoes, seven times less water for greens, and around 10 times less land compared to field agriculture.

BrightFarms greenhouse

Photo: Snapshot from BrightFarms video

A new 56,000-square-foot farm in Lower Makefield Township, Pa., will grow up to 500,000 pounds of produce per year. A 100,000-square-foot greenhouse being built on a 5-acre tract owned by the Port Authority of Kansas City will produce 1 million pounds of vegetables. An 80,000-square-foot greenhouse on a Brooklyn rooftop (pictured above) will produce about 1 million pounds of lettuce and tomatoes.

Greenhouses are also in the works in St. Paul, Minn., and Oklahoma City. Next up are projects in Chicago, Washington and Indianapolis.

Each greenhouse will serve a cluster of local retailers.

“We only grow food in the communities we serve,” Lightfoot says.

The key is local. Basil harvested in the morning will be on the store shelves that afternoon. BrightFarms produce will sell for about the cost of organic vegetables.

“Everybody wants to know where their food is coming from,” Lightfoot says.

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