That’s a huge benefit for grocery stores that are engaged in a constant struggle to respond to volatile produce prices. A freeze in Florida, where most of the country’s tomatoes come from in winter, can send prices soaring, while drought in California can double the prices of lettuces and greens. “Every fresh produce buyer knows from experience that prices are volatile thanks to the weather, availability or how successful the growing season is. And that’s never good for a retail business,” says Christian Haub, who served as chairman of the board of A&P and is now a senior adviser to BrightFarms. “This model gives you a kind of price guarantee over the long term.”
Another benefit: minimizing waste, or “shrink” as it’s called in grocers’ jargon. It takes at least a few days for most vegetables to travel from big farms out West to the rest of the country. That shortens the already limited time those vegetables can sit prettily on the shelf or in your refrigerator at home. On average, grocers have to throw out 6 percent of the produce they bring into the store. Tomatoes, one of BrightFarms’ products, are also one of the worst offenders. If buyers can cut the shrink by even 1 percent, they can offer better prices than the competition — or bump up profits.
Details about the District’s greenhouse are still hazy. BrightFarms hopes to announce its grocery partner by the end of this month and open the greenhouse in early 2014. Once it is in full production, the facility’s 1 million pounds of produce will be sold in city and suburban stores, and possibly to chefs and local residents as well. The project is expected to create 25 full-time jobs and 100 construction jobs, which is good news for more than just food lovers. This effort, says Stan Jackson, the president and chief executive of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., “allows us to start building job opportunities in the area of agriculture that could lead to living-wage experiences for residents that have been victims of long-term and chronic unemployment.”
Why the District? When BrightFarms last fall approached 20 cities with plans to build urban greenhouses, the Department of General Services responded enthusiastically and quickly identified a vacant 10-acre lot in Ward 8 that could accommodate one.
“We didn’t want to go to a city that was going to bog us down in 10 months of red tape,” says Lightfoot. “The D.C. government has been accommodating and hospitable. On sustainability, D.C. is a real player.”
Black, a former Food section staffer based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.