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Jenn Frymark, chief greenhouse officer at Gotham Greens
Issue 25: On rooftop farming, sustainability, and Gotham Green's expansion across the United States.
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Gotham Greens is an urban farming company founded and headquartered in Brooklyn that focuses on growing lettuces and herbs in year-round greenhouses. I chatted with Jenn Frymark, Chief Growing Officer and founding partner, about rooftop farming, sustainability, and Gotham Green's expansion across the United States.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me about your background and role at Gotham Greens?
Jenn Frymark: I’m a native New Yorker and have always been drawn to plants and the natural environment for health and inspiration. As an undergraduate student, I decided to major in plant science after taking an incredible course in organic gardening. I spent a lot of time building school gardens and working on organic farms while completing my degree. I was approached by schools that wanted to build garden programs that didn’t have the outdoor space you’d usually need, so I started looking into hydroponics. As soon as I walked into a hydroponic greenhouse for the first time, I knew that greenhouse farming was what I wanted to do for a living, so I immediately pursued a graduate degree in Controlled Environment Agriculture.
Before joining Gotham Greens, I designed and operated greenhouses and indoor farming facilities all over the world and conducted research at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona. I managed greenhouses in Antarctica providing fresh vegetables for U.S. research scientists, as well as the greenhouse at the Cuisinart Resort and Spa in Anguilla. I also designed and led operations for the Science Barge Greenhouse in New York City, which is a 100% renewable energy-powered floating greenhouse on the Hudson River.
I joined Gotham Greens as a founding partner in 2009, alongside CEO Viraj Puri and CFO Eric Haley, and it’s been a thrill to watch it grow into the incredible coast-to-coast operation it is today. In my role as Chief Greenhouse Officer, I focus on the technology selection and greenhouse design for our new locations, talent development and managing the growing operations, yield and quality for our 9 greenhouses located across 6 states: New York, Illinois, Rhode Island, Maryland, Colorado and California. Gotham Greens has developed a strong reputation as a socially minded company, supporting local food access and urban greening initiatives throughout all of the communities in which we operate.
Brianna Plaza: How did Gotham Greens get started?
Jenn Frymark: Gotham Greens is on a mission to transform the way we approach our food system, putting people and the planet at the forefront. Gotham Greens is a pioneer in indoor farming, bringing fresh, sustainably-grown produce to cities across America. We’ve grown from a single rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., to the largest network of high-tech, climate-controlled hydroponic greenhouses in America with 9 facilities across 6 states. We primarily focus on growing leafy greens and herbs, and we also offer a line of fresh salad dressings, dips and cooking sauces that celebrate plant-based ingredients.
Brianna Plaza: How does Gotham Greens work? Can you walk me through urban/rooftop farming 101.
Jenn Frymark: For most parts of the United States, it’s difficult to get fresh, locally grown produce all year round. Since 98% of lettuce grown in the United States comes from California and Arizona, by the time it reaches markets across the Midwest and East Coast, it loses its quality, taste, and nutritional value - and has a much shorter shelf life. This makes many consumers feel disconnected from the food we eat and contributes to food waste. Indoor farming — and specifically greenhouse farming — provides a consistent and proven way of growing food closer to where people live, year-round regardless of the season and temperature outside.
In a way, cities exist because of farming and people creating permanent settlements to grow food. Over time, our dense cities pushed the farms out to the periphery, but indoor farming provides a technology that can bring the farm back to the city. We can essentially grow anywhere, in any climate, on the ground or on the roof. We can use less land in these crowded spaces to contribute a meaningful amount of food. The greenhouse lets us control the leafy part of the plant environment and by controlling the lights, temperature and other variables, we can grow year-round. We use a hydroponic system to grow the roots, and with this technology, not only are we extremely water efficient, but we can manipulate the plant density through all stages of development, maximizing the use of space, which is so important with urban growing. At Gotham Greens, we choose our greenhouse locations strategically with the goal of growing fresh produce that can be delivered within less than a day’s drive for most people in the U.S.
Brianna Plaza: Can you talk about the sustainability efforts of Gotham Greens?
Jenn Frymark: We use hydroponic growing systems in 100% renewable energy-powered greenhouses. Our farms use up to 95% less water and 97% less land compared to conventional open-field farming. Greenhouse farming brings people closer to their food — because we grow our greens close to urban areas, we have less of a need for long-distance refrigerated transportation, and that ultimately improves product quality and shelf life. On average, our produce lasts about 3 weeks on grocery store shelves and your fridge — which really makes a difference for busy people who want to make the best meals for themselves and their families. So our customers receive fresher, longer-lasting greens, and it also cuts down on food waste, which is critical from an environmental standpoint as well.
Brianna Plaza: Real estate is notoriously expensive in New York City, why did Gotham Greens decide to open in a higher-end neighborhood as opposed to a more affordable part of the city or tri-state?
Jenn Frymark: New York City is a place where most people couldn’t ever imagine growing fresh food. As a native New Yorker, I’ve always seen the creativity, resilience, and resourcefulness that this city has to offer. We’ve been so lucky to partner with retailers including Whole Foods — in fact, one of our greenhouses is on top of Whole Foods’ Brooklyn flagship store, and it’s really amazing that we can grow, harvest, pack, and sell our greens to New Yorkers all in the space.
Brianna Plaza: How did the partnership with Whole Foods in Gowanus come about?
Jenn Frymark: Whole Foods was the first major retailer to carry the Gotham Greens brand, so it was such an incredible, full-circle moment to see this come together. It’s actually the first-ever commercial greenhouse farm integrated into a supermarket! I love that this greenhouse truly drives home the idea of eliminating the time that it takes for fresh produce to get from the farm to the grocery store shelf.
Brianna Plaza: In your moves to other states, you’ve focused on larger cities as opposed to more rural areas. Can you talk to me about that strategy decision?
Jenn Frymark: Our goal is to grow fresh produce that can be delivered within less than a day’s drive to most people across the U.S. We’re also committed to adaptive reuse projects –– helping revitalize urban communities by transforming otherwise underutilized real estate into productive agriculture –– breathing new life, high-quality jobs and economic development into local communities. For example, our Baltimore greenhouse is located on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel Mill and our Providence greenhouse is located on the site of a former GE lighting factory. We are proud to play a small part in helping to revitalize communities across America.
Brianna Plaza: It seems that Gotham Greens focuses more on repurposing old buildings instead of building new, is there an advantage to one over the other?
Jenn Frymark: When we look for new greenhouse locations, we always want to breathe new life and high-quality jobs into a community. One of the ways we do this is by transforming otherwise underutilized real estate. The location of our Baltimore greenhouse in Turner Station used to be a thriving steel mill that employed thousands of people, and when the steel mill shut down about a decade ago, all of these people lost their livelihoods. So we’re proud to play a part in communities like that one to bring new, fulfilling job opportunities.
Brianna Plaza: How does Gotham Greens think about expansion across a city or region? Do you focus on large roofs that can scale or would you ever look at small clusters of roofs on top of smaller buildings?
Jenn Frymark: We’re always looking for new ways to innovate, and for now, we’re mostly focused on larger, ground-level greenhouses because we can grow the most produce. That’s not to say we wouldn’t look into small clusters in the future — things are constantly evolving and it’s really exciting. The indoor farming industry is experiencing a lot of growth right now and it’s so great to be at the forefront of the movement.
Brianna Plaza: What role do you see this sector of the farming industry playing in combating issues like food deserts and climate change?
Jenn Frymark: Today, 98% of lettuce in the U.S. is grown in just two places: Salinas Valley in California and Yuma County in Arizona. This puts so much pressure on these areas and makes the lettuce supply very susceptible to disruptions. Think of the devastating impact of natural disasters and how the droughts in California severely impacts both water availability and water quality.
Our decentralized, hydroponic farming system is the most water-efficient form of agriculture in the world. Gotham Greens irrigation system uses 10 times less water compared to conventional farming while also getting rid of all agricultural runoff. It takes Gotham Greens less than a gallon of water to grow one head of lettuce, while conventional farms would use 10 gallons to grow that same head of lettuce. To put it in perspective, that’s saving 270 million gallons of water a year compared with a conventional farm (which is the same as filling up 20 million bathtubs!). Along those lines, because Gotham Greens and other indoor farming companies use less space to grow fresh produce, it ultimately protects biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. Our growing approach has no negative impact on precious soil resources.
Brianna Plaza: Do you think that this type of farming could ever surpass or replace traditional farming in terms of production capacity?
Jenn Frymark: The indoor farming industry is experiencing tremendous growth right now and we are excited to be at the forefront of the movement. Consumers, retailers and restaurants are increasingly recognizing the reliability, consistency and high quality of greenhouse-grown produce that’s grown in close proximity to large portions of the population and we only expect this model to continue to grow as consumers pay greater attention to the food they eat and its impact on the planet. While indoor farming may not represent the future of all fresh produce production, for certain types of crops, it will become much more prevalent in the coming years.
Brianna Plaza: Gotham Greens is starting to expand into the non-vegetable product world. What prompted that direction vs expanding your vegetable product offering outside lettuces and herbs?
Jenn Frymark: It’s been a blast to see our fresh pestos, salad dressings, dips and cooking sauces take off. This is something our consumers were asking for — they were looking for convenient, delicious foods made with fresh ingredients, and we can grow those right in our own greenhouses. Right now, we’re focused on what we do best – leafy greens, herbs, and dressings and sauces rooted with our greens – and bringing these items to more consumers across the country.
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