Vegetables Under Glass: Greenhouses Could Bring Us Better Winter Produce | KERA News

Vegetables Under Glass: Greenhouses Could Bring Us Better Winter Produce

Dec 8, 2015
Originally published on January 3, 2016 7:57 pm

In America, our food options are remarkably unaffected by the changing seasons. We just keep eating salad greens and tomatoes without regard to the onset of winter.

In most of the country, there's little chance that the greens we eat in the late fall and winter are locally grown.

But if there were greenhouses nearby, they could be. And in a small but growing number of places, local greenhouses are there.

Take Lower Makefield Township, Pa., right across the Delaware River from Trenton, N.J.

It's a gray, chilly, fall day when I visit. But when I step inside the greenhouse, I feel the warmth of sunlight that's been trapped by its glass walls and ceilings.

In front of me, there's a sea of green: more than an acre of baby salad greens.

"It looks like a field of lettuce. It's actually a field of boards, with lettuce growing on them," says Paul Lightfoot, founder and CEO of the company BrightFarms, which owns the greenhouse.

The plants and the boards are all floating on ponds of water. The green plants grow out of slits in the boards, while roots extend down below, into the water.

The plants are fed a precisely balanced diet of nutrients through the water. They get energy from the sun, and that's supplemented this time of year with overhead lights.

What's most remarkable is how fast they can grow under such conditions, with optimal temperatures and lighting. These plants go into the pond as pale seedlings, so tiny you can hardly see them. Thirteen days later, they will be baby kale, ready for harvest.

In fact, 10 or 20 times more lettuce will come out of this greenhouse in a year, per acre, than from an outdoor field. That's partly because the greens grow faster in ideal conditions, and partly because those ideal conditions continue year-round; there's no winter.

Some countries grow a lot of their vegetables in greenhouses. In the Netherlands or Canada, you can find vegetable greenhouses that cover 100 acres.

But they're rare in the U.S. And the reason for this is simple.

We have easy access to such fields in the temperate-climate states of California and Arizona. Mexico, with its vast and expanding fields of fresh tomatoes, is right next door, and farms in Central and South America aren't far away, either. It's easier and cheaper to ship vegetables across the country than to grow them in local greenhouses.

Lightfoot, though, is betting that the future of vegetables, starting with salad greens and fresh tomatoes, lies indoors.

To show me why, he drives me to a nearby supermarket, McCaffrey's, in the borough of Yardley. It's selling his products.

Lightfoot pulls a package of BrightFarms arugula off the shelf and checks the expiration data. "This has about nine days left," he says. These greens came from his greenhouse just a few days ago. Printed on the package, in big letters, are the words "Locally Grown."

Next to them is the competition: organic salad greens that almost certainly came from California or Arizona.

There's no difference in price. But some of that long-distance arugula and spinach looks a little wilted from that trip across the country.

This is part one of Lightfoot's sales pitch. "You can see the difference in freshness. So it's going to taste better. It's going to last longer in the refrigerator," he says.

The second part of Lightfoot's pitch for local greenhouses is environmental.

Those fields in California and Arizona are in deserts, he says. The water they need is increasingly scarce. Most greens, for instance, come from the Salinas Valley in California, and farms there rely primarily on irrigation water from underground aquifers. Up to now, farmers have been able to pump an unlimited amount of water from their wells.

"In the United States, we just realized that we didn't have endless land and water a few weeks ago, almost," Lightfoot says.

Modern greenhouses require much less water — as little as 5 percent as much water as open-air field production.

Yet outside experts say that the case for greenhouses isn't quite so convincing in all respects.

They say that greenhouses do take less water but require extra heat and light during cold and dark parts of the year. And that usually comes from burning coal or gas. This adds to that global greenhouse effect.

Neil Mattson, a greenhouse expert at Cornell University, has calculated that growing lettuce in greenhouses in New York state can release twice the amount of climate-warming gases as growing lettuce in California — even when you consider the fuel burned to ship it across the country. "It's not so good, and that's the status quo," says Mattson.

But he says those numbers may improve, as better lighting and heating technologies come online. And even though growing vegetables in greenhouses is usually a bit more expensive than open-air production, Mattson does agree that indoor farming's key advantage — the freshness of its produce — may outweigh cost for many consumers.

That's why the number of vegetable acres under glass in the U.S. is rising. From 2007 to 2012, the amount of land devoted to greenhouse production of vegetables in the U.S. increased by more than 50 percent. Mattson regularly hears from entrepreneurs who are interested in getting into this business, and are looking for advice.

"I think it really has legs," Mattson says. "Ultimately it will depend on how robust consumer demand is for fresh, local, food."

According to Lightfoot, that demand is booming.

"The demand is way higher for this product than our capacity right now," he says. "There's no limit right now. We're raising the capital, and we're building two other greenhouses that are much bigger than this."

Those greenhouses are outside Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The one near Chicago will take advantage of waste heat from a nearby ethanol plant, cutting its energy consumption drastically.

Right now, BrightFarms is growing salad greens, basil, and tomatoes. Down the road, Lightfoot says, his greenhouses could diversify into cucumbers, peppers, and strawberries — anything, he says, in which a local product looks and tastes a lot better than one trucked in from far away.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. enjoys robust, year-round produce from warm-weather states, so greenhouses aren't a huge part of the winter growing season. However, they are gaining a popularity in many parts of the country. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It's a gray, chilly, fall day in eastern Pennsylvania. But I step inside a building with walls and ceilings made of glass and feel the warmth of trapped sunlight. In front of me I see a sea of green, more than an acre of baby salad greens.

PAUL LIGHTFOOT: It looks like a field of lettuce. It's actually a field of boards with lettuce growing on them.

CHARLES: This is Paul Lightfoot, CEO of the company BrightFarms, which built this greenhouse. He shows me how the plants and the boards are all floating on ponds of water. He lifts up one of the boards.

LIGHTFOOT: And now you can see the roots - the roots hanging down below the board. These look like beautiful, nice, healthy roots and they're obviously soaking up the nutrients from the water.

CHARLES: They're fed a precisely balanced diet of nutrients through the water. They get energy from the sun and, this time of year, also some lights overhead. They go into the pond as pale seedlings, so tiny you can hardly see them.

LIGHTFOOT: See the little fuzzy guys.

CHARLES: Those are going to turn into green plants?

LIGHTFOOT: Yeah, in fact, just keep looking. That's what happens day by day by day by day.

CHARLES: Thirteen days from now, this will be baby kale, ready for harvest. They grow fast because they are pampered, with perfect temperatures, optimal light. In fact, 10 or 20 times more lettuce will come out of this greenhouse in a year per acre than from an outdoor field. Some countries grow a lot of their vegetables in greenhouses. In the Netherlands or Canada you can find vegetable greenhouses that cover a hundred acres, but rarely in the United States. There's a simple reason. Growing vegetables in the open air fields of California and Arizona is cheaper. But Paul Lightfoot is betting that some of these vegetables, starting with salad greens and fresh tomatoes, will be moving indoors soon. And to show me why, he drives me to a supermarket nearby. It's selling his products.

LIGHTFOOT: Baby arugula, baby spinach, kale blend - and we can see by looking at it that this has got about nine days left on it.

CHARLES: Nine days until the expiration date. These plants came from his greenhouse just a few days ago. Printed on the packages in big letters - locally grown. Right next to them is the competition - organic salad greens from Arizona or California. Same price, but some of that arugula and spinach looks a little wilted after the long trip across the country. And that is part one of Paul Lightfoot's sales pitch.

LIGHTFOOT: I mean, you can see the difference in freshness, so it's going to taste better. It's going to last longer in a refrigerator.

CHARLES: The second part of Lightfoot's pitch for local greenhouses in environmental. Those fields in Arizona and California are in deserts, he says. The water they need is increasingly scarce and costly.

LIGHTFOOT: In the United States, we just realized that we didn't have endless land and water a few weeks ago almost.

CHARLES: Now, outside experts say the case for greenhouses is not always quite so convincing. They do take less water, but greenhouses in cool, dark places need extra heat and light, which usually comes from burning coal or gas, adding to that global greenhouse effect. Neil Mattson, a greenhouse expert at Cornell University, says growing lettuce in greenhouses in New York state can release twice as much climate-warming gases as growing lettuce in California, even when you consider the fuel burned to ship it across the country.

NEIL MATTSON: It's not so good, and that's the status quo.

CHARLES: But he also says that could improve with better lighting and heating systems. Growing in greenhouses is also a little more expensive usually, and it's a lot more expensive if you try to do it in cities or entirely with artificial light. But the big advantage, Mattson says, is the freshness. And that's why the number of vegetable acres under glass in the United States is rising.

MATTSON: I think it really has legs, and ultimately it's going to depend on how robust consumer demand is for fresh, local food.

CHARLES: According to Paul Lightfoot from BrightFarms, it's plenty robust.

LIGHTFOOT: The demand is way higher for this product than our capacity is right now. There's no limit right now. We're raising the capital. We're building two other greenhouses that are much bigger than this.

CHARLES: Those greenhouses are outside Washington, D.C. and Chicago. The one near Chicago will take advantage of waste heat from a nearby ethanol plant - another advantage. Right now, they're growing salad greens and tomatoes. Down the road, he says, it could be any vegetable that tastes better if you don't have to ship it across the country. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.