Chuck Robinson, Assistant Copy Chief
Chuck Robinson, Assistant Copy Chief

The locally grown movement in Kansas City is on the brink of something amazing.

New York-based BrightFarms in late March announced plans to build a $4 million, 100,000-square-foot (2.3 acres) hydroponic greenhouse near downtown that is expected to supply one or more retailers in the metropolitan area with fresh leaf and lettuce products, herbs and tomatoes. No retailer has yet signed an agreement for the project, according to BrightFarms.

I think about friends in the area who are local produce growers and realize I should apologize.

There really must be some money in the locally grown movement to attract this investment from outside the area.

BrightFarms was created in 2007 as a greenhouse consultancy. It grew out of the nonprofit group New York Sun Works, which created and runs Science Barge, a prototype for a sustainable urban farm and environmental education center on the Hudson River in New York City.

BrightFarms hits Kansas City produce sceneOnce my brain settled down after looking over the materials for the BrightFarms plans for K.C., I started thinking about friends and colleagues who had already invested in the area’s locally grown movement. This sort of looks like some big city kid coming in to take the little kids’ candy.

Thanks to my faulty preconceptions, I had sold short the potential, according to a friend, Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate Kansas City, which represents 125 urban growers producing fruits and vegetables on 100 acres of land.

“The real upside to this is we don’t have enough wholesale supply on the local market,” Kelly said. “There is more demand than there is supply.”

She said her board sees BrightFarms filling a need for wholesale supplies of fresh produce, while Cultivate Kansas City’s members serve a more direct-to-the-consumer retail market.

Most producers in the area who have been in the market for quite a while have run into problems with scaling up large enough to supply a retail supermarket chain.

Bret Fahrmeier, produce manager for Fahrmeier Farms, Lexington, Mo., agreed there was demand enough for a lot more suppliers and that the BrightFarms project has great potential.

“They can do things I can’t afford to do, and they can keep fresh, local food in the hands of the consumer all year long,” Fahrmeier said.

There is a danger of the bigger operation scuttling prices in summer, when Fahrmeier and other local tomato producers have their big volumes. Small and midsized producers will have to get better at marketing, he said.

“I’ll have to step up my A game,” he said.

Established local producers also admit to being a little jealous of an out-of-town company possibly getting government incentives.

Kate Siskel, marketing and media relations manager for BrightFarms, said the company has received no incentives at this point and that it is too early for K.C. project financing.

BrightFarms opened a greenhouse this year in Yardley, Pa., from which it has been selling produce to McCaffrey’s Market and Superfresh stores for a few weeks, Siskel said. BrightFarms last summer began operations in a 38,000-square-foot greenhouse on a back lot at J&J Distributing, St. Paul, Minn.

The group also has struck a deal in St. Louis with Schnuck Markets Inc. and submitted plans to the city for that greenhouse, about the same size as the one proposed for K.C.

BrightFarms hopes to begin construction in the next few months, Siskel said.

BrightFarms also plans a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse for a Brooklyn warehouse rooftop; it’s now in the design stage. The company expects to begin construction in the fourth quarter of 2013, Siskel said.

There is plenty of room in the market for BrightFarms and the smaller locally grown producers in an area, Siskel said.

“Demand for local produce is so much stronger than the supply that, even with the addition of our greenhouse, demand will remain at a premium,” she said.

“The greenhouse will dramatically increase the amount of local produce available, generating more excitement for and access to local foods.”

Most locally grown operations don’t rate a blip on the national radar screen. Even though the BrightFarms projects seem huge by locally grown standards, the 2.3-acre facilities are a drop in the bucket.

However, I wonder what the cumulative effect could be of multiple 2-acre operations set up in a metropolitan area and also spread across the country. Add to that some revolutionary zeal, and the effect could be huge.

“We’re committed to revolutionizing the supply chain, building greenhouses east of the Rockies and creating shorter, more efficient supply chains that prioritize freshness, flavor and all the community benefits of local food,” BrightFarms’ Siskel said.

My attendance at local farmers markets and friendships with local growers notwithstanding, I have sold the locally grown movement short. The local waters have been chummed with enough money that some bigger fish are getting interested.

We may be on the brink of a sea change.

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