Though still a miniscule part of the food business, the growth of farmers' markets says something important about consumer tastes and where food retailing may be headed.
According to a recent SN article, the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. now stands at 7,175, a 17% increase from last year and almost double the number in 2004. This most certainly reflects consumers' ever-expanding interest in local produce that's been harvested in the past 24 hours. Many food retailers have responded by boosting their offering of local produce and even hosting their own farmers' markets.
But a recent development may give retailers and consumers even greater access to fresh local products. That is the advent of hydroponic greenhouses, such as Gotham Greens, the new Brooklyn, N.Y.-based enterprise that I recently visited and reported on in this week's issue (see story, "Brooklyn Greenhouse Offers 'Ultra Local' Produce").
Located on the roof of an industrial warehouse, Gotham Greens is producing high-quality lettuces and herbs at competitive prices in the tightly controlled environment of its 15,000-square-foot greenhouse. Like the produce at a farmers' market, Gotham Greens' products, which are available at some local stores and restaurants, can be consumed within 24 hours of harvesting, their freshness and flavor undiminished by their brief journey to the marketplace. Moreover, unlike most farmers' markets, Gotham Greens can provide these products throughout the year.
Some critics question whether produce can taste good if grown in a water-based hydroponic environment rather than in soil. However, I can personally attest to the excellent flavor of Gotham Greens' butterhead lettuce, having recently sampled some at home. Afterwards, at my local Stop & Shop, I decided to buy some butterhead lettuce — also hydroponically grown — provided by another vendor located a considerable distance from the store; it didn't taste nearly as good. The difference, it seems, was not the products' method of growth but their distance traveled.
Gotham Greens is among the first of several entrepreneurial efforts aimed at creating urban or localized hydroponic greenhouses. Next year, BrightFarms, New York, is expected to start building these facilities on the rooftops of supermarkets that have agreed to buy the product grown there. These operations also have a beneficial effect on the environment.
It will be fascinating to track the progress of localized hydroponic greenhouses as they cater to consumers who are hungry for local produce, fresh from the farm.