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Innovation Ecosystem

Let them eat lettuce?

Gotham Greens, a new high-tech urban farming venture, is expanding to Providence, with a greenhouse factory that will produce some 10 million heads of lettuce and greens a year

Photo by Richard Asinof

The new Gotham Greens urban greenhouse factory now under construction in Olneyville.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/8/19
With great fanfare, a faux groundbreaking ceremony was held at the new Gotham Greens facility now weeks into construction, marking the latest investment by the state in what is known as high-tech agriculture – a urban greenhouse growing 10 million heads of lettuce and greens a year.
Beyond lettuce, what other kinds of crops can be grown in such urban greenhouses? Will such enterprises morph into the more profitable production of cannabis for a growing legal market for marijuana sales? Will the large industrial scale of such high-tech greenhouses overwhelm the smaller farmers engaged in community-based growing? What does it mean to be pesticide-free versus organic? Where will the bulk of the lettuce and greens produced be sold? How will the new factory producing lettuce and greens reduce food insecurity in Rhode Island?
This week, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha will talk about her new book, What The Eyes Don’t See, and the lessons learned from the ongoing travesty and tragedy of lead poisoning in Flint, Mich. The talk should serve as a wake-up call about the need to build in clean water protections for Rhode Island’s water supply legislatively, moving forward, to address future attempts to monetize or buy the Providence Water Supply system.
With the ongoing threats from climate change, the fresh water supply in Rhode Island is challenged, creating what could be called “clean water insecurity.” Any definition of the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island and its pathway to future prosperity must factor in clean water insecurity as part of the equation, and not just as an externality.

PROVIDENCE – All that was missing from the photo op ceremony for the “groundbreaking” on March 28 for new Gotham Greens facility, it appeared, was a direction to cue the marching band to play a John Phillips Sousa tune, with plenty of oompah, oompah, oompah, to celebrate the arrival of a 21st century green growing technology in Olneyville and with it, the creation of what has been labeled as 60 new permanent “green collar” jobs.

The new greenhouse urban farm will deploy high-tech growing methods, including Big Data climate control intelligence, according to news reports.

The project represents the second major investment by the state in support of new high-tech agricultural farming, the first being the investment of $4 million in a new “agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship campus” in West Kingston, to be built on 50 acres, including some 25 acres of greenhouses, in partnership with the Rhode Island Mushroom Company and American Ag Energy, Inc. The goal of the investment, announced in December of 2018, is to help secure Rhode Island’s position as the “agricultural technology hub” of the Northeast, with the capability of producing 10 percent of the state’s total vegetable needs. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Making RI a hubbub of innovation.”]

The Gotham Greens ceremony featured Gov. Gina Raimondo, CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Viraj Puri, co-founder and CEO of Gotham Greens, in front of the rapidly rising metal frame structure on the former industrial site along Harris Avenue in Olneyville, offering a sharp contrast to the former brick factory structures surrounding the site.

Call it a mutual admiration society. Puri said that Providence was a better fit than Boston. “Providence seemed like a better place for us,” he said, as reported by The Providence Journal.

“We’re a state with soul,” Gov. Raimondo said at the ceremony, as reported by The Providence Journal. “We’re also a state who knows a lot about food.”

“This project will further strengthen the state’s already strong food sector, a vitally important industry in Rhode Island,” Pryor said, as reported by Rhode Island Monthly.

“Providence is known far and wide as a culinary capital,” said the Providence Department of Planning and Development in a social media post. “In addition to having some of the most critically-acclaimed restaurants in the country, we also possess a resident community of urban farmers, a robust consumer market; and a premier culinary university.”

This unique mixture of ingredients, the Department’s post continued, in language that seemed to riff on the idea of creating a salad, “empowers us to take advantage of fast-growth trends in organic foods markets to become a major regional organic food production and distribution hub.”

Construction well under way
Despite the faux groundbreaking, the reality was the construction of the new growing space, a $12.5-million, 11,000-square-foot greenhouse facility, had already been underway for a number of weeks. The plan is that the new high-tech greenhouse, when completed, will produce some 10 million heads of lettuce and leafy greens a year beginning in early fall of 2019, with Providence being the site of the firm’s latest expansion. The other Gotham Greens urban growing farms are located in three New York City locations [two in Brooklyn, one in Queens] and a fourth location in Chicago.

The Gotham Greens website offered tantalizing descriptions of its lettuce, much as if the flavor of fine wines were being described: “Soft and buttery-textured, our butterhead leaves are sweet and succulent. This delicacy of lettuces is terrific in salads and sandwiches. Also known as Boston or Bibb, this delicate, tender lettuce is an excellent source of potassium. Simply delicious.”

[The Whole Foods market on North Main Stree in Providence said it did not currently stock Gotham Greens products. Comparable packages of greens were priced at $3.99. The price for “Gotham Greens baby butter greens,” marketed as pesticide free but not organic, was selling for $2.43 at the Park Slope food coop in Brooklyn, N.Y.]

Gotham Greens’ website also described its green tech factories as follows: “Our technologically advanced, urban greenhouse facilities, located in New York City and Chicago, provide our customers with a year-round, local supply of premium quality, pesticide-free produce grown under the highest standards of food safety and environmental sustainability.”

The new facility in Providence, being built on a brownfields site that has been vacant for two decades, is expected to generate some 60 permanent jobs, what city officials hailed as “well-paying ‘green collar’ jobs for Providence residents.

[According to the website Indeed.com, the average Gotham Greens hourly pay ranges from approximately $11.41 per hour for a packer to $16.80 per hour for a truck driver, as of Jan. 23, 2019.]

The diverse set of jobs will range from plant scientists to low-skilled workers tending the plants, according to Puri, as reported by The Providence Journal.

The project has been awarded up to $2.3 million in tax credits from the state, contingent on actual job creation, another $250,000 from the state as part of its brownfields remediation program, and $200,000 from the city to support job creation and training.

Who could ask for anything more?

In an Instagram post on the day of the photo op ceremony, WPRO’s Steve Klamkin asked his followers if they could identify what the building was from a photo of the metal-framed structure, offering the clarifying comment: It is not a prison.

And, when the Rhode Island Monthly story about the event was posted recently on Facebook, the first comment from one of readers wryly noted: “Soon conversion to all cannabis.”

Dodge ball
ConvergenceRI was unable to attend the morning pep rally for Gotham Greens, but reached out that Thursday afternoon to try and get answers to questions from Puri and his team.

No response from Gotham Greens was provided on Thursday, Friday, or by the Saturday morning deadline, so ConvergenceRI wrote back on Saturday evening, asking for an explanation.

Finally, late Saturday night, a response was made to set up a call on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, the call on Sunday morning was not with Puri, but rather a request to set up an interview later in the week.

And, instead of being willing to conduct a telephone interview, Puri opted to respond to the initial series of written questions.

Here is the ConverenceRI written question-and-answer with Gotham Green’s co-founder and CEO, Viraj Puri.

ConvergenceRI: Why was Providence chosen as the location for the expansion of Gotham Greens?
PURI:
We considered a number of sites in various cities and states for Gotham Greens’ expansion into New England. Providence was chosen for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the unique nature of the former GE Baseworks site, [which manufacturing the metal base of electric light bulbs].

While we understood that the site would be challenging to redevelop, we were equally drawn to the prospect of adaptively reusing a formerly iconic manufacturing landmark and being able to locate our greenhouse in the heart of the city.

In addition, Providence is strategically located at the gateway to New England and easily accessible from our Brooklyn, N.Y. headquarters. The city and state’s elected officials and staff were also welcoming. CommerceRI’s Rebuild Rhode Island program was a key incentive, as well.

Finally, Providence’s rich legacy of manufacturing, world-class institutes of higher education, and a thriving local food culture were also strong contributors to our decision making.

ConvergenceRI: How long has the project to locate in Providence been going on? I saw a reference that Mark Huang had been very involved.
PURI:
We were initially introduced to the idea of locating [a Gotham Greens facility] in Providence by Mark Huang, the city’s former Economic Development director, in late 2016, during an event in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mark and his former colleague, Emily Vander Does, were instrumental in attracting us to Providence and introducing us to key stakeholders from across the state.

ConvergenceRI: Have you signed contracts or do you have agreements in place for where you will sell your greens, with Whole Foods locally, and with other stores? Or, with restaurants?
PURI:
Gotham Greens’ products will be sold to supermarkets, restaurants, and foodservice operators throughout Rhode Island and the greater New England region.

ConvergenceRI: What kinds of water system purity and quality efforts will you employ with the product?
PURI:
Gotham Greens employs advanced treatment and filtration systems for its irrigation water. Further, we capture and recycle the irrigation water for re-use which allows us to use 90 percent less water than conventional farming while eliminating all agricultural runoff, which is the leading cause of global water pollution. In other words, our ‘closed loop’ water systems allow us to use water extremely efficiently.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of job training, will you be partnering with any voc tech schools in Rhode Island?
PURI:
Gotham Greens will be working with the Providence Department of Economic Opportunity on a job creation and training program. As part of that program, we plan to attract candidates from appropriate vocational training programs. We look forward to bringing what we refer to as “green collared jobs” to Providence – ranging from entry level to high tech.

ConvergenceRI: Will you be partnering with local groups, such as the Barrington Farm School, which is preserving a working farm, in potential educational efforts?
PURI:
Absolutely, we’re excited to collaborate with local businesses, schools and community partners. Part of our mission as an urban agriculture company is to connect city residents to their local food system and to help build awareness around healthy eating and sustainability.

Historically, at our current locations in NYC and Chicago, this has meant: hosting free weekly tours at our greenhouses to show consumers exactly where and how their food is being grown; donating thousands of plant seedlings to local wellness education and environmental stewardship initiatives; and partnering with food rescue organizations in each city to distribute fresh produce to our neighbors facing food insecurity.

This includes working with local mobile food markets and food pantries as well as subsidized produce in neighborhoods that face food insecurity. We’re excited to partner with local organizations and educational institutions throughout our new community in Providence to increase access to healthy foods and support wellness and nutrition education, ag-tech research, and environmental education programs across the region.

One early example of this effort is via Gotham Greens recently deeding a portion of its property to the City of Providence and collaborating [with city agencies] to create a publicly accessible bike path along the Woonasquatucket River. This new portion of the bike path will connect riverbank communities to downtown Providence.

ConvergenceRI: How would you position your enterprise within the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island?
PURI:
Gotham Greens is positioned at the nexus of clean technology, sustainable agriculture, and commercial food manufacturing. As a global pioneer in the field of urban, indoor agriculture and a leading producer of locally grown produce in several major cities in the U.S., we hope that our new project in Providence can serve as a milestone and catalyst for even greater investment in the city and region’s food industry development.

Rhode Island has a storied food culture and a rich history of manufacturing and technology as well as world-class universities. We’re looking forward to collaborating with and serving as ambassadors to this innovation ecosystem.

ConvergenceRI: How proprietary are your seed sources? Could you explain?
PURI:
Our seed sources are proprietary.

Top-down or bottom up?
As a follow-up to the question-and-answer interview with Puri, ConvergenceRI reached out to a number of folks involved with urban farming initiatives in Providence and Rhode Island, to see if any had been contacted by Gotham Greens about the new facility and potential opportunities for collaboration.

Julius Kolawole, president of the African Alliance of Rhode Island, a grassroots urban farming initiative, responded by saying: “No. They did not reach out to me. I am not aware if they reached out to others.”

Kolawole continued: “In my opinion, those who gave approval also failed to engage the community in this process. I am not aware of strategies with a focus on communities, to build on [our] strengths, [our] know-how and significant contributions. The same company wanted to build in the Boston area; I am not sure how they ended up in Rhode Island.”

Once of the farmers involved with the Barrington Farm School, a local nonprofit focused on restoring a working farm as an educational enterprise, Candace Clavin, told ConvergenceRI that there had been no direct contact between Gotham Greens and the Barrington Farm School.

Clavin mentioned that a Farm To Institution Summit being held in Amherst, Mass., was expected to deal with “issue of agritech taking the place of small farms.”

Clavin said that one of her favorite stories about this line of agritech business involved the demise of Boston Greens in Rhode Island, an enterprise that went from growing greens to allegedly being involved in cocaine and sex trafficking. [There is no relationship or connection between Gotham Greens and Boston Greens.]

A participant in the distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables, who said they were unfamiliar with the new venture by Gotham Greens, indicated that one of the biggest barriers to distributing local produce was the higher price.

Making the connections
Producing and selling 10 million heads of lettuce a year is a significant economic activity within the food enterprise system. The questions are: who will be the targeted customers for the lettuce? How many will live in Providence? How will the largesse of the high-tech growing operation address the known problems of food deserts and food swamps that fuel what is known as food insecurity, considered a major contributing factor in the preponderance of childhood obesity in Rhode Island?

As the innovation economy and innovation ecosystem continues to receive major investments from the state and city as a way to bolster economic prosperity, there appears to be some dissonance between how communities fit into the vision of that prosperity: in terms of sustainability, is a top-down or bottom-up economic model that will work best?

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