Turning a Rooftop Garden into a Supermarket's Supply Chain

The bagged organic baby mixed greens on sale in my local Whole Foods Market in Bethesda, MD, are not very "green" at all. To grow the lettuce, vast amounts of water must be moved from the Colorado River to California, the most hydrologically altered landmass on the planet. The lettuce is picked, packaged, washed and shipped in refrigerated trucks (because it's perishable) roughly 2,800 miles across America. The cost? $3.99. If you believe, as I do, that the demand for water and oil are going to grow, this five oz. bag of greens will only get more expensive.

There ought to be a better way of getting lettuce into the hands of supermarket shoppers.

Paul LightfootPaul Lightfoot, the chief executive of BrightFarms, a New York City-based startup, thinks he has found one: His company is planning to design, build, finance and operate hydroponic greenhouse farms on supermarket rooftops, eliminating time, distance and cost from the food supply chain.

You can't get more local than that unless you grow vegetables in your own backyard.

"It's better food, better for the environment and better for business," says Lightfoot.

The a 41-year-old CEO was trained as a lawyer, ran a software company that managed retail supply chains and has now married his passion for food with his work, he told me when we spoke by Skype the other day. "I've been annoying my friends and family about local food for a long time," Lightfoot jokes.

The idea of growing veggies on the roof of a supermarket struck me as cute, but what I wanted to know was whether it could become a real business, with scale. One of my reservations about local food is that small farms (and most farms near cities are small) can't compete on price with big ones. So food at many farmer's markets tends to be a pleasant indulgence for those of us who can afford it.

"I'm first and foremost a capitalist," Lightfoot replied. "I'm about listening to clients and meeting their needs. If it was about cute, I wouldn't be here. It's absolutely about delivering them higher profits."

Next page: The value proposition behind rooftop farms