Lettuces and herbs soon will be growing on an environmental cleanup site in eastern Baltimore County.
The Bethlehem Steel site at Sparrows Point was a toxic wasteland when Tradepoint Atlantic began developing it five years ago.
The company Gotham Greens’ mission is to grow produce where you would least expect it.
The way they’re going to do that in Sparrows Point is with a greenhouse. And not just your run of the mill greenhouse. A greenhouse that will be able to grow six million heads of lettuce each year on two and one half acres.
“It’s one of the largest and probably one of the most advanced leafy green growing operations in the world and there’s really no hubris intended in saying that,” Gotham Greens Cofounder and CEO Viraj Puri said.
Puri recently gave a tour of the facility. And while it isn’t quite finished, as soon as you step inside the greenhouse, a chilly fall day transforms into warm late spring.
“It’s glass and steel,” Puri said. “We use a very advanced glazing material that diffuses the light to ensure that the plants are receiving the optimal spectrum of light to aid photosynthesis.”
Puri said the plants will be highly coddled.
“We’ve got sensors located all over the greenhouse, tracking variables like temperature, humidity, light levels, carbon dioxide, oxygen, vapor deficit,” Puri said.
Puri said the first seeds will be planted around Thanksgiving with produce in local grocery stores and restaurants by Christmas.
Gotham Greens wants to change how and where fresh produce can be grown. It began in Brooklyn in 2011. From there it’s expanded to greenhouses in Chicago and Providence, Rhode Island. The Providence greenhouse is located where there used to be a General Electric plant.
When Tradepoint began developing the 3,300 acre site five years ago, much of it was toxic from chemicals left over from the Bethlehem Steel days. That cleanup continues.
Senior Vice President Aaron Tomarchio admits early on they did not see something like Gotham Greens coming.
“Honestly that was not on our radar screen,” Tomarchio said.
Tomarchio said growing greens on site is good for Tradepoint, which is best known for its Fed Ex, Under Armour and Amazon distribution centers.
“I think it shows the diversity of our tenant base as well as what’s possible on our site,” Tomarchio said.
Puri said this approach to agriculture makes farming more environmentally sustainable. For instance, agriculture uses 70 percent of available fresh water in the world, and it takes five or six gallons to grow one head of lettuce in the field. Gotham Greens will use 95 percent less water because it will be captured and re-used.
Also, Puri said the year-around $11 million greenhouse will produce what would take 150 acres outdoors.
Puri said, “Beth Steel, represented, for better or for worse, 20th century manufacturing. And we believe Gotham Greens and others represent clean, green 21st century manufacturing.”
Since Gotham Greens locates in urban areas, its transportation costs and emissions are lower. They have plenty of customers nearby, so they only ship regionally.
One of the company’s customers is Whole Foods Market. Erik Brown, Executive Leader of Whole Foods Market Produce said this time of year, it can take from a few days to a week to get greens grown in the Southeast and out west into their Mid-Atlantic grocery stores.
“When Gotham and their program rolls out it can be within a day or two,” Brown said.
Puri said some commodities like rice, wheat and barley need a lot of land and can be easily shipped so will never be grown indoors. But for the highly perishable stuff, he said massive greenhouses can play a small but important role in agriculture’s future.
That includes making farming possible in all kinds of places.