The following post was written and originally appeared at Fresh Summit 2012. It has been excerpted here:
Viraj Puri is an unlikely entrepreneur. He studied economics and international development at Colgate University and spent the next few years working in international development. His work brought him to India and Malawi, where he helped install and implement green building designs. This experience eventually led him to New York City where he worked for an environmentally friendly engineering firm. It was here where Viraj’s love of food intersected with clean technology.
Hydroponic farming has been around since the 1600s, but it had never been successful adapted for large-scale urban use. That was until Viraj. His firm specialized in hydroponic farming, and the more he learned, the more practical he thought it was. “My professional goal is to, one step at a time, deploy creative technological solutions,” he told an interviewer, “that are appropriate and viable for the geographical location and cultural context of a given region.”
In the case of New York City, he found a geographic location with very few green spaces, but ample rooftops. He also found supportive culture, and a local government that was open tourban farming, having earlier identified it as a key strategy to reduce sewer flooding and greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps most importantly, New York City had a populace very willing to pay top dollar for fresh produce.
Suddenly, Viraj’s farm wasn’t just a feel good idea, but a viable economic investment.
In 2008, after tinkering his business plan, Puri raised $2 million and launched Gotham Greens. Today, the 15,000 square foot hydroponic greenhouse sells over 80 tons of fresh organic produce a year. The key to their success is a mixture of their quality and speed. “We can harvest something in the morning,”he told Crains, “and have it on the supermarket shelf or restaurant plate that same afternoon.”
Their success had led to many competitors across New York City.In 2010 Brooklyn Grange opened a soil based rooftop farm that has shipped 40,000 pounds of produce into the city. “There are a number of parallels with regular agriculture,” the founder Ben Flanner said, “What we don’t have are deer or foxes or rodents.” Next year, Brightfarms, a New York based company, will build a 100,000 square foot farm in Brooklyn and already reached a deal with a local super market to sell the produce. This year the City’s Economic Development Corporation asked for proposals for a 200,000 square foot farm.” “We’re testing the marketplace,” the corporation’s president Seth Pinksy told The New York Times.
When you ask Viraj Puri, the man who ignited this urban farm revolution, what led him to hydroponic farming, he will give a telling answer, “I suppose my interest in food combined with an interest in farming and clean technology.”