BrightFarms, a producer of locally grown branded produce, is building a 180,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse farm in Abilene, Texas, according to The Shelby Report.
The New York-based company plans to start constructing the $17-million facility this summer and to have fresh, pesticide-free and non-GMO greens and herbs available at local retailers by early next year.
BrightFarms' goal is to set up hydroponic greenhouses in different cities to produce year-round local produce. The company says that, compared to traditional long-distance, field-grown produce, its approach uses 80% less water, 90% less land and 95% less shipping fuel.
BrightFarms, founded seven years ago in New York, has produce-growing facilities in Illinois, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Another in Ohio is set to open in July. The hydroponic systems in the company's greenhouse farms use a mineral-based nutrient solution to help grow the produce without soil. They also operate with recirculated water, so there is less waste and no agricultural runoff, according to BrightFarms.
BrightFarms currently grows a spring mix, baby kale, romaine, arugula and other lettuces and can quickly switch up the types of produce it grows and add new products, the company said in a release.
Hydroponics is becoming more popular as a way to save space and produce high yields without using soil. There is ongoing controversy about allowing crops grown this way to be labeled as "USDA Organic," but BrightFarms isn't currently marketing its produce as organic. It seems to be more interested in the locally grown value-add, as well as the produce's availability.
Locally grown food has become a lucrative segment over the years. According to research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and reported by TechCrunch, total sales of local food hit $12 billion in 2014. Figures are projected to grow to $20 billion by 2019.
BrightFarms says it can pick its herbs and lettuce greens when they're at peak freshness and get them to retail outlets within 24 hours, which is much easier with the greenhouse farms being located near major metropolitan areas. The company says its retail partners — including Walmart, Albertsons, Kroger and Giant — make up about 60% of the current grocery market.
Since the Abilene greenhouse farm won't be finished until early next year, it's not clear which retailers BrightFarms has in mind as customers. H-E-B, based in San Antonio, is a possibility. The family-owned retailer has a presence in more than 150 communities across the Lone Star State, and Abilene is centrally located enough to be able to transport fresh produce to Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio within a few hours.
Hydroponic greenhouse farms look to be a practical way to grow fresh, local produce and meet consumer demand in a year-round, sustainable way — and more retailers seem to be taking notice of it. An Iowa Hy-Vee, for example, grows up to 15 pounds of basil, lettuce and mint each week on hydroponic "grow walls" that are positioned outside the store and within the produce department. The grocer claims that the method grows produce faster and uses 90% less water than traditional growing practices.
Investments like this could be a great way for grocers to bolster their health halos and better position themselves as mission-based brands — designations today's shoppers seek out and which could help differentiate retailers from their competitors.