Schnucks Partners with BrightFarms to Build Hydroponic Greenhouse

click to enlarge A concept drawing for a rooftop greenhouse. - BRIGHTFARMS
A concept drawing for a rooftop greenhouse.

Some say that it is nearly impossible to get decent produce in the city of St. Louis.

Veggie lovers stranded someplace far from a reputable farmer's market can often find themselves stuck with wilted lettuce, tasteless tomatoes, or -- if looking for something even slightly exotic -- left with nothing at all.

BrightFarms, a New York-based company, wants to change all that. They've just announced an intriguing partnership with Schnucks that will bring a large hydroponic greenhouse to St. Louis and better produce to their aisles.

Although the partnership is brand new and there are few specifics about where the 50,000-square-foot facility will go, BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot paints an interesting picture.

"We need to be where there's a dense population. We're always looking to use non-utilized space," he says. "We'd rather pull heat that's being wasted from a bakery, data center, brewery. We generally want to be places where we're going to create jobs and economic activity."

The basic idea is to make locally grown produce more accessible. As Lightfoot says in this TED talk, BrightFarms aims to cut down on the greenhouse gas emissions that traditional farming and cross-country trucking require, and to stop breeding crops that sacrifice flavor for transportability. Hydroponics means the plants are grown in a nutrient-rich water bath as opposed to soil.

click to enlarge Paul Lightfoot, BrightFarms CEO - TED TALKS YOUTUBE
TED Talks YouTube
Paul Lightfoot, BrightFarms CEO

The Schnucks deal is the fifth such partnership for BrightFarms. They've already broken ground in St. Paul, Minnesota, for a deal with SuperValu and in Pennsylvania, with the McCaffrey's chain.

"We pursued St. Louis largely because we sort of fell in love with Schnucks," says Lightfoot.

Mike O'Brien, the vice president of Schnucks produce, estimates that his stores' stock is about 20 percent locally-sourced in the summer. In the winter, that figure dwindles to two or three percent. He says the BrightFarms project will help him make those figures more robust.

"We're reacting to the demand of our customers," says O'Brien. "Our customers are more interested in where their food comes from."

BrightFarms is also offering quite a deal. They find the site, build the greenhouse, employ a local farmer and about five additional greenhouse attendants, grow the crops, and bring them to the stores. All Schnucks has to do is commit to buying the produce. Lightfoot says he expects to have a site picked out by the end of the calendar year, with a groundbreaking by March.

We asked Ray Massey, an extension economist at the commercial agriculture program at the University of Missouri, what he thinks of the plan. Massey says he can't speak specifically on BrightFarms, but says he's come across some similar ideas.

"The question about greenhouse gasses is quite disputable," he says generally about the purported benefits of locally-grown produce. "The transportation is only like four or five percent of the greenhouse gasses from crop [production]."

Another greenhouse rendering. - BRIGHTFARMS
Another greenhouse rendering.

He also says that while the crops would be locally grown, the company itself is not local, which is another tenet of the locavore philosophy.

But Massey also admits he's never heard of a hydroponic greenhouse of this size and can't say whether or not the project could save on emissions.

"That's a new one," he says.

Lightfoot, on the other hand, speaks with total confidence about the project.

"This is all about, essentially, bringing better produce to a market that doesn't cost more and that's better for the planet," he says. "Schnucks is a little bit ahead of the curve in embracing that."

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