A new, 100,000-square-foot Gotham Greens facility opened in Olneyville, R.I., recently, growing fresh lettuce in 10 varieties, and Genovese basil, enough to stock stores across New England, even during the harsh winter months. It’s part of a sustainable urban farming movement that is not only pesticide- and herbicide-free, but also bacteria-free. The facility also provides 60 jobs.
When the Food and Drug Administration recalled California-grown romaine lettuce just before Thanksgiving because of E. coli, grocery stores across the country reached out to Brooklyn, New York-based Gotham Greens, said Gotham Greens co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri. They provided clean lettuce, grown under controlled conditions.
Gotham Greens began in Brooklyn with a hydroponic rooftop greenhouse in 2011 and with a commercial-scale greenhouse above a Whole Foods in 2014. A third one followed in Chicago, and then another in Queens, New York.
The Providence greenhouse is the seventh and most advanced in technology and size, said Jodi Genshaft, director of marketing. The 100%-renewable electricity-powered greenhouse uses 95% less water and 97% less land than conventional farming.
The greens will grow year-round using hydroponics, a method for growing plants without soil. Each lettuce head or basil plant starts with one seed planted in a peat-moss pod in the nursery. Trays of plants are sprouted before being moved to the greenhouse for full growth. Basil has its own section of the greenhouse because it likes warmer temperatures.
Then the greens are hand-harvested in bunches that resemble bouquets. There’s no washing of the lettuce or the basil because they aren’t exposed to anything.
They are hand-packed before being sent to restaurants and grocery stores, including Dave’s Marketplace, Whole Foods and Shaw’s.
Experts, some 60 employees, and automation create optimum conditions for temperature, vapor density and CO2 levels.
But what is most important to consumers is the speed with which Gotham Greens can deliver its products after they are harvested at their peak to ensure they are fresh-tasting, nutritionally dense and long-lasting, said Genshaft. “This is in sharp contrast to industry standards, as 95% of lettuce in the U.S. is grown in California and Arizona,” she said.
Those products take a week or more to travel to the East Coast, which is why they fade so fast in home refrigerators. Gotham Greens’ lettuces and basil have a shelf life of three weeks.
Demand for the products is growing. Chicago already has a second greenhouse. Soon to open is one in Baltimore to serve the Mid-Atlantic states. Another is planned for Denver next year.
The company has also launched into the prepared-foods market with three pestos — traditional, vegan and spicy with jalapeño — and a lineup of salad dressings, including vegan selections. They are already in the three supermarket chains, said Kristina McDonald, marketing and sales coordinator for New England.
Still planned on-site, at 555 Harris Ave., is a relocation of part of the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Bike Path, with land donated by Gotham Greens, said McDonald. Spring tours of the greenhouse are also in the works.
At a news conference for Gotham Greens in March, it was announced that in 2017, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation had approved $2.2 million in tax credits to build the greenhouse, which cost $12.2 million. The tax credits include $1.3 million under the Rebuild RI program and $900,000 under the Qualified Jobs programs, which take effect only after new employees begin paying income taxes.
Gotham Greens is built on land that once housed General Electric Baseworks, a factory where workers made metal bases for light bulbs. It was a contaminated brownfield site.
In a phone interview last week, Puri said that money from the city and state enabled a cleanup.
He said it was two to three years ago that Gotham Greens began looking for a site in New England. While the company considered Boston, and Hartford and New Haven in Connecticut, it was Rhode Island that seemed the best fit, and state and city leaders courted the business. Providence’s strong culinary culture and technology know-how was also an attraction, he said.
The company has already made partnerships, including with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, to donate produce that might not look pretty enough for stores but is still fine to eat.