Bright Farms takes local produce model nationwide with hydroponics

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

BrightFarms plans to build 10 to 15 more greenhouses over the next three years.
BrightFarms plans to build 10 to 15 more greenhouses over the next three years.

Related tags Local food hydroponics

It wasn’t too long ago when locally-grown produce evoked images of backyard gardens or roadside produce stands many miles outside of city limits. Now, the local produce movement has morphed into an urban-centered industry thanks to the rise of hydroponic greenhouses.

One major player in the hydroponic space, BrightFarms, grows local produce nationwide by financing, building, and operating greenhouse farms in urban areas, partnering with nearby supermarket chains, enabling it to quickly and efficiently eliminate time, distance, and costs from the traditional food supply chain.

BrightFarms’ locally-grown lettuce and basil are currently in 650 stores including Walmart, Kroger, Ahold, and Albertsons locations. In two years, the brand has grown its distribution by 225%

Paul Lightfoot, CEO BrightFarms
BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot says the company has reached 1.5 million households

reaching a household penetration of 1.5 million, CEO Paul Lightfoot said.

“We're a mission-driven company focused on changing the health of our society and our planet by becoming the first national brand of local produce.We work with the nation's largest retailers to offer a premium, delicious and healthy product at an affordable price for the average consumer,”​ Lightfoot told FoodNavigator-USA.

And its footprint continues to expand dramatically with a greenhouse set to open in Ohio this summer giving a stronger reach into the Midwest market and another greenhouse opening in Texas in early 2019.

Its route to rapid expansion hasn’t been a solo journey however. Bright Farms has brought in more than $100m in funding having recently secured more than $55m in Series D equity financing from investor Cox Enterprises in late June.

“This financing will enable us to continue rapid national expansion of BrightFarms’ network of local and sustainable farms,”​ Lightfoot said. 

Future of urban hydroponics

Like many other players in the space, BrightFarms’ greenhouses consist of a hydroponic system utilizing a combination of natural and artificial light to grow its lettuce varieties and basil. Its distinct advantage is the short distance the company's produce has to travel to get to stores and eventually in the hands of consumers,  resulting in energy and cost savings.

According to the company, its operations use 80% less water, 90% less land, and 95% less shipping fuel than long-distance, centralized and field-grown suppliers.

Affordably priced for the mainstream shopper, BrightFarms is able to reach a broader audience – who have tended to be priced out of the category – by appealing to their desire for fresh, locally-grown produce, he claimed.

“Local is today's #1 demand trend in both restaurants and supermarkets. As consumers demand fresher, local food, more major retailers are turning to BrightFarms to meet this demand,”​ Lightfoot added.

The company’s clear local origins has also helped it compete against organic offerings.

In fact, the Food Marketing Institute’s 2017 Power of Produce report​ listed both organic and local as two of the largest trends in fresh food, but noted that consumers have a significant preference for local. Researchers found that when quality, appearance, and price are equivalent, 60% of consumers chose the local option versus just 32% for organic.

At retail, BrightFarms is giving big produce brands a run for their money, according to Lightfoot.

“When we enter retailers, we are replacing the shelf space of West Coast distributors. Our program drives incremental category growth while attracting our retailers’ most valuable consumers,” ​he said.

“For retailers, fresher produce also leads to longer shelf life and helps them eliminate waste.”

As BrightFarms continues to grow – targeting the buildout of 10 to 15 more greenhouses in the next three years – it remains focused on building greenhouses outside of “densely populated urban cores” ​as part of its strategic business model of providing access to locally-grown produce at price point where most American shoppers can participate, according to Lightfoot.

“The locally-grown food trend is here to stay and is already challenging big agriculture.”

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