NYC’s first commercial farmer
Meet Viraj Puri, New York City’s only commercial farmer. His farm, Gotham Greens, comprises 15,000 square feet of rooftop greenhouse, yielding roughly the same as a traditional 6-acre farm. As the planet’s population swells, particularly in major cities, scientists and public officials believe urban farms will play an important role supplementing our food supply.
“Cities will never feed themselves; however, this is not the main point of urban agriculture,” says Nevin Cohen, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York’s New School of Social Research.
“Local food is a growing trend and there is such potential here,” he says, pointing out that New York City has the right ingredients to support urban farming — acres of usable rooftop space, eager entrepreneurs, sympathetic public officials, and an expansive food market that demands fresh local produce.
Started in 2008 with co-founder Eric Haley and Jennifer Nelkin, Gotham is supplying the needs of local chefs and supermarkets from a warehouse in a sparsely populated section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It is the only rooftop greenhouse in New York City to produce vegetables on a commercial sale. Gotham grows 5 to 10 types of lettuce which it supplies to restaurants and high-end grocery stores in the New York metro area.
On a tour of the farm, Puri’s environmental engineering background is evident in the design of the rooftop operation. The produce is grown hydroponically, using recycled and mineral-enhanced water — much less than is needed for the traditional soil farm.
Solar roof panels on the greenhouse provide nearly half of Gotham’s electricity. The computer that monitors the climate knows exactly how much heat or cool air to provide, turning on lights during cloudy days and opening side vents instead of roof vents when it rains.
Gotham is sustainable even down to the “beneficial insects” it uses instead of pesticides. When a crop-eating bug is found, Puri unleashes its natural enemy — ladybugs, for example, eliminate the threat of aphids.
Gotham doesn’t sell its produce beyond a 15-mile range. Puri says the proximity cuts down on carbon emissions and also allows him to guarantee delivery to local customers. After Superstorm Sandy, Gotham was the only farm able to deliver fresh lettuce to local Whole Foods stores.
Business is so good, Puri says the company will expand with two additional greenhouse farms this year, one in south Brooklyn and the other in Queens. Puri knows New Yorkers can’t live on lettuce alone, so the new locations will grow cucumbers, tomatoes, and even year-round strawberries.
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