The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a bright idea for growing food in the city had to move . . . to the country

Originally destined to be built in the District, BrightFarms greenhouses are up and running 60 miles southwest of the city, in Virginia’s Culpeper County. The state and county kicked in a total of $150,000 in grants to win the project. (Whitney Pipkin/For The Washington Post)

An unseasonably warm sun beamed heat into the refurbished greenhouse more than an hour outside Washington, making it feel like a place where tomatoes might not mind growing, even in mid-December.

The plants already reached waist high, rooted in plastic-sheathed blocks of finely woven rock that allow almost all the water to be reused in this hydroponic system. Here, a careful concoction of nutrients and cardboard-box hives filled with bees primed for pollinating would all but guarantee vine-ripeness by February, when the tomatoes will begin appearing in BrightFarms clamshells in 100 Washington-area supermarkets.

Virginia’s governor had cut the ribbon on this more than $8 million facility in Culpeper County a couple months before, and a half-dozen employees in BrightFarms T-shirts were already at work tending to vines. Nearby, construction workers put the finishing touches on the larger of two greenhouses totaling 160,000 square feet, where arugula, baby spinach and other lettuce mixes would soon sprout on floating boards.

All this — the jobs, the investment, the futuristic food growing — was supposed to be in the District’s Ward 8, where, even BrightFarms chief executive Paul Lightfoot admits, “no one needed it more.” Two dozen greenhouse jobs would have been welcome in the ward with the city’s highest unemployment rate, nearly 15 percent. The facility had the potential to transform a blighted area east of the Anacostia River, turning it into a producer of the healthful food that is often out of reach for its residents.

The idea: cut short the path from plant to grocery shelf

“It was going to be the largest commercial greenhouse within a city that was ever built,” said Mark Chambers, director of sustainability and energy management for the District’s Department of General Services. The BrightFarms project was his “baby,” and a darling of former mayor Vincent Gray’s administration, too.

Ensconced in the project were all the aspirations of an urban farming movement that aims to bring the food supplies of cities closer to their population centers.

But, after trying for nearly two years to overcome the types of obstacles that plague too many of these ventures — pollution concerns and a prohibitively high cost of business among them — the company opted last year to build its greenhouse in Elkwood, Va., 60 miles from the city.

Lightfoot, 45, said the decision didn’t come easily. “Nobody tried harder” to keep the project in the District, he says. But it wasn’t the first time that one of the New York-based company’s projects originally slated for an urban center had settled for a location outside the city instead. Now, doing so has become a mantra, rather than a mistake, for the firm that Fast Company named among the “Top 10 Most Innovative Companies” in the world.

“What’s the rule?” Lightfoot asked, posing a rhetorical question to the company’s vice president of operations, Josh Norbury, during a tour of the new greenhouse, before answering it himself: “We only make the same mistake twice.”

Doing business in the city

The nearly 1 million pounds of tomatoes, greens and herbs the Virginia greenhouses will grow each year will go to stores in and around the District, just as they would have if grown inside the city. One of those stores is a few miles away from the 33-acre parcel the company shares with Blue Ridge Produce, a local produce aggregator also focused on selling to the Washington market.

BrightFarms’ innovation isn’t in how it grows food so much as in how it delivers it “from farm gate to store with nothing in between,” Lightfoot said. The greenhouses are built on the backs of 10-year contracts with supermarket chains that allow the company to invest in infrastructure and hire its own growers. BrightFarms’ first project, in Bucks County, Pa., has been growing salad greens year-round for nearby McCaffrey’s Food Markets since 2013.

In exchange, the stores get produce that is historically subject to volatile pricing and seasonality at a consistent price and quality from a local source.

Having a lease on land in the District allowed BrightFarms to secure a contract with Ahold USA, the company that owns Giant Food Stores, Peapod delivery services and Martin’s Food Markets in the region, to supply produce to about 100 of its stores in the Washington area. BrightFarms was able to maintain that contract despite moving the greenhouse project.

A midwinter trip to a supermarket produce section, where tomatoes that ripened on their way from Mexico are the norm, would reveal the virtue of such a business plan. Those often-tasteless orbs, and salad greens traveling just as far from drought-ridden California, are the ones BrightFarms aims to compete with, if not replace, at the store.

Growing that produce inside city limits would have been an added bonus, a win-win-win, Lightfoot said. He used to go to the proposed site on the southeastern tip of the District and think, ‘This is great.”

“It was a neighborhood that needed jobs and, frankly, needed fresh food,” he said. “But we couldn’t get past the hairiness of it.”

Chambers said the parcel of land was federal property that had been transferred to the District in the 1970s with limitations requiring it to have some sort of recreational use. The BrightFarms plan for a 120,000-square-foot greenhouse included educational gardening programs that would have met those requirements while making use of rare open land that was otherwise unusable as more than a park.

The problem: Someone else had already used the site, illegally, as a dumping ground. At the edge of the property, where a tributary runs to the Potomac River, mounds of construction debris had been abandoned and had begun to pose a pollution threat to the food-growing venture.

BrightFarms had already invested $700,000 in the property, which it had leased for more than a year, when the breadth of that contamination — and the cost of its cleanup — became clear at the end of 2014.

Chambers said that realization coincided with an almost 30 percent increase in construction costs in the District that put the project over budget. “A lot of it has to do with doing business in a metropolitan area,” he said of the problems that arose at the site.

BrightFarms asked the city, which had invested land and staff time in the project but no funding, for a $1.5 million grant to defray rising costs. Gray was wrapping up his time in office, and though his successor, Mayor Muriel Bowser, supported the project, there were plenty of competing interests for that kind of money.

“Even if the city had decided to prioritize it at the time, it would have taken a long time, and they didn’t have the time,” Chambers said.

Zero to 60

In the meantime, BrightFarms started working on a backup plan, and Virginia sent its best salesman — the governor — to woo the company.

Culpeper County and Virginia each kicked in $75,000 grants for the project, which fits with the governor’s desire to recruit more food-based businesses, and greenhouses in particular, to the state.

“Greenhouses are being viewed — not just in Virginia but around the world — as very, very valuable projects as we look to feed a population that’s growing by leaps and bounds,” said Todd Haymore, the state’s secretary of Agriculture and Forestry .

After 18 months of work in the District with no greenhouse to show for it, Lightfoot said, his company needed only a nudge to head west.

In 2012, before the District greenhouse became a Virginia one, BrightFarms had signed a lease to build a 100-square-foot rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. It would have been the largest of its kind and was welcomed by a city that has become a hotbed of urban farming innovation. But that deal fell through when the building owner’s work to make the roof ready wasn’t done on time, and BrightFarms’ lease allowed it to walk away from the project.

Since then, another New York-based company, Gotham Greens, has found success erecting smaller greenhouses on top of buildings in Brooklyn and Chicago. (The company’s total portfolio of four greenhouses, according to its website, has the same square footage as one of BrightFarms’ projects.) And the farmers behind Brooklyn Grange, which grows food on rooftop plots in New York City, have demonstrated that urban areas can grow tens of thousands of pounds of produce each year.

Still, when BrightFarms looked at expanding to Chicago, it reached out to the surrounding communities rather than the city, deciding from the outset that its 160,000-square-foot facility was better suited for Rochelle, Ill.

“When we’re replacing 3,000-mile produce and we’re shipping to a hundred stores, it turns out that the difference between zero and 60 miles is small,” Lightfoot said. “We determined it isn’t worth it.”

Or is it?

“There’s a lot of truth to that,” said District Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who fought to keep the BrightFarms project in the nation’s capital. “However, I don’t want to forsake these opportunities.”

To that end, the D.C. Council voted last year to create a food policy council and a director staff position to address, among other issues, the types of barriers that prevented BrightFarms from taking root in the city. More than 200 municipalities in the United States already have such food policy councils, which work across agencies to improve food access and help food and businesses grow.

Chef Spike Mendelsohn chairs the District’s council, and the newly appointed director, Laine Cidlowski, a former urban sustainability planner with the District’s Office of Planning, is expected to hit the ground running with food initiatives this year.

“There’s a value — even beyond the food itself — there’s a value to having these [projects] here in the District,” Cheh said.

The city isn’t giving up on its dream to house larger-scale agriculture. Chambers said his Department of General Services, which oversees 30 million square feet of real estate, is looking for more rooftops and unused spaces where food could grow on a patchwork of plots. The District’s 2014 Urban Farming and Food Security Act laid out a plan to identify vacant lots that could be farmed and created tax incentives to encourage cultivation of those lands.

The District also is investigating new technologies, such as LED lighting that could transform empty, sunless buildings into microgreen-growing meccas.

The BrightFarms project, though it didn’t come to fruition as planned, was a milestone, Chambers said, “because we put it out there that this is important to the city. It’s important for us to look at food differently.”

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