The green roof phenomenon is poised for another season of growth as supermarkets consider the feasibility of harvesting select fresh produce items using roof top farming systems.
“Remarkably, our industry grew last year by 28.5%, up 15% from 2009,” said Steven Peck, founder and president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, Toronto, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding the horizon of sustainable roofing alternatives. “We've been experiencing growth despite the slowdown in the economy.”
San Francisco independent grocer Bi-Right Market built its own successful 400-square-foot rooftop garden which grows herbs, greens and tomatoes. The plants thrive in galvanized steel troughs and the store's chefs ascend daily to snip and cut what they need. On the East Coast, the 6,000-square-foot Eagle Street Rooftop Farm atop a warehouse in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, N.Y., not only cultivates produce and flowers, it's home to egg-laying chickens and several apiaries used in the production of “Rooftop Honey.”
The potential of offering “hyper-local” produce is irresistible to some retailers looking for ways to differentiate themselves at a time when every competitor is offering locally sourced foods.
“With a relatively modest investment you get to leverage the space and accomplish multiple public objectives,” said Peck, who estimates that construction costs roughly $15 a square foot, or double the price of conventional roofs.
Several companies have stepped in and developed turnkey farming systems that don't break the retailer's bank. Besides the food output, the farms can reduce costs associated with transportation and packaging, as well as fulfill corporate sustainability goals.
“We break down the benefits into three categories: better food, better business and better environment,” said Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, a New York-based builder of rooftop farms.
BrightFarms' business model appeals to retailers because it finances, develops and manages the entire business. In return, the store signs a contract obligating it to purchase whatever is harvested. By cutting out the cost of transportation, and the sales and marketing costs, prices are market competitive, Lightfoot said.
“Even if the unit pricing was the same as the market, and not better, the retailer's effective gross margins would be higher because they're going to sell more of what they bought because things are not going to go bad while they own it,” he said, adding that a good-size farm can generate up to $1.5 million a year.
Farms don't have to be roof-oriented to make a statement, however. The firm built a multi-tier herb garden along the window bank of a Whole Foods Market in Millburn, N.J. The aromatic plants are used in the deli/prepared food department, or bunched and offered for sale in the produce area.
Some food enthusiasts complain the hydroponic techniques used in such operations create produce that lacks flavor, though they acknowledge the environmental benefits. To date, certain greens such as salad lettuces, kale, Swiss chard and herbs are reliable crops ideally suited for the medium, though tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are also resilient growers.