Viraj Puri’s Urban Farm, Gotham Greens, and the Quest for Really Good Produce
In terms of difficulty, finding a building that can support a climate-controlled urban rooftop greenhouse in New York City falls somewhere between finding an apartment with multiple windows (hard) and finding a date who doesn’t own a festive “date hat” (seemingly impossible).
“These aren’t little rooftop planter boxes,” says Gotham Greens co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri, 37. “They’re tens of thousands of square feet of glass and field structure, with a lot of technology: irrigation systems, climate control systems, lighting systems, cooling systems, and heating systems. They’re sophisticated, complex buildings.”
Not the kind of space one is likely to find on StreetEasy, then. On top of structural concerns, there’s insurance and permits to consider. In 2009, when Puri and co-founder Eric Haley started looking at spaces for their first greenhouse, building after building fell through. Finally they found a space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for their flagship farm, and in 2011 it began operating—now that greenhouse produces 100,000 pounds of greens per year. Gotham Greens now has four of them in New York and Chicago, and greenhouses in Baltimore, Maryland and Providence, Rhode Island are under construction.
The logistics of building a commercial-scale agriculture operation in a crowded city might seem prohibitive, but it was important to Puri to situate Gotham Greens in cities. Many city-dwelling Americans only experience agriculture at a great remove—30,000 feet up or so. “We’re increasingly an urban species, and I think we’re increasingly disconnected from how our food is grown and produced—the entire supply chain.” Puri explains, “There’s an experiential component to Gotham Greens. People can see the produce and learn about our methods of sustainable agriculture.”
Gotham Greens’s accessibility has perks from a business standpoint, too: In 2012, the day after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, Gothams Greens was the only produce on grocery store shelves. For Puri, who has nightmares about greenhouses blowing away during hurricanes (and, since building a second greenhouse in Brooklyn atop a grocery store, about water leaking into the space below) it was a moment of affirmation. “The greenhouse was unscathed,” he says proudly, “It actually really underscored our whole supply chain and the concept of making our cities and regions more self-sufficient.”
Puri doesn’t have any illusions about replacing the country’s megafarms with a network of local greenhouses. “Traditional farming techniques will always be necessary because we have to produce many different types of food crops to meet the global need,” he says, “but there are certain types of food crops, like highly perishable vegetables—salad greens—that can be grown leveraging this amazing technology.”
I think of all the times when I’ve brought home a package of non-local spring mix from the supermarket and found half the box rotting, slimy and pungent, even well before the expiration date. Puri explains that when I get a dud package of lettuce, it’s usually because a lot of time has passed between when it was harvested and when I open it. Often, my spring mix has traveled from California or Arizona—it’s been harvested in the field, washed, processed, packaged, and then sold through a complex supply chain. Gothams Greens, Puri explains, is harvested and delivered to the supermarket within 24 hours. The process is much closer to my agriculture fantasy, wholly informed by orange juice ads, of farm-to-plate production.
You’d be forgiven for imagining that Puri has always wanted to be a farmer. “I certainly didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a lettuce farmer,” he says. He’s always enjoyed being outdoors, and he knew he wanted a career that would lend itself to natural resource conservation. He also loves technology, and he saw that implementing technological solutions could have a real impact on sustainability. (“MIT designed cookstoves that use a fraction of the wood traditional cookstoves use!”) Puri is a farmer insofar as he produces plants, but he points out that Gotham Greens is also a real estate development company, a construction company, a manufacturing company, and a sales and marketing company. “My office is in one of the greenhouses, and I make sure I walk among the plants at least every day,” he says, “but I wear a lot of hats.”
It helps that he loves the product. Good lettuce, he says, “has to taste like there’s life in it. Not something that’s just a green leaf that’s devoid of any sort of life or nutrition or personality that you’re putting in your mouth.” Puri is a butter lettuce man himself, with a penchant for lettuce wraps. I ask whether his work at Gotham Greens makes him feel like he has to eat healthily all the time. “I mean, we enjoy a diverse diet,” he says. “Let’s just
Lauren Larson is a writer and editor in New York City, aspiring to be a writer and editor in Bali.