Is controlled environment agriculture addressing the issues facing the agriculture industry?

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BrightFarms founder and president Paul Lightfoot, who is chairman of the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, said controlled environment agriculture could play a major role in helping to solve some of the significant issues facing the ag industry and U.S. Photos courtesy of BrightFarms

As chairman of the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, Paul Lightfoot at BrightFarms is looking for ways to make major improvements in food production, sustainability and consumption.

When Paul Lightfoot founded BrightFarms in January 2011 he had no experience in commercial food production. Ten years later he is president of one of the fastest growing controlled environment agriculture companies in the United States. Starting with one 54,000-square-foot greenhouse facility in Pennsylvania in 2013, BrightFarms has expanded with greenhouse operations in four states with a total production area of 700,000 square feet.

“I had a background in retail supply chain improvement,” Lightfoot said. “I was running a supply-side software company for about nine years and was thinking about whether I could create an opportunity that would combine my career with my personal interest in healthy sustainable food. I studied different opportunities and came across the leafy greens supply chain as one that was ripe for destruction.

“At the time, all salads in North America basically came from the West Coast, either Salinas, Calif., in the summer or Yuma, Ariz., in the winter. I identified a very centralized, very industrialized supply chain that wasn’t benefitting consumers.”

Lightfoot said the concentrated field production locations and long-distance shipping required to deliver leafy greens to East Coast markets was not good for the product.

“Most leafy greens are five to seven days old when they arrive at retailers’ distribution centers, and that shows in the quality, nutrition and taste,” he said. “I also thought field food production had some Achilles heals’ in terms of food safety and sustainability, which I thought would become more important, providing BrightFarms with a terrific market opportunity.

“I knew that consumers would continue to focus on healthy eating and that the demand for salads was going to rise. I grew confident that BrightFarms could disrupt a supply chain that was fragile and vulnerable.”

After opening its first greenhouse facility in 2013, Lightfoot said by the end of 2014 the company had figured out its operating model.

“We began to raise serious capital,” he said. “We graduated from venture capital to private equity in 2016 as we hit the national stage. We opened much larger greenhouses, one in Virginia to serve the Washington, D.C., market and one in Illinois to serve the Chicago and Milwaukee markets. Those were in partnership with Ahold Delhaize and Kroger.

“Before then I don’t think the produce industry had taken controlled environment salad production seriously. After 2016 we established ourselves as a contender to continue winning market share.”

Lightfoot said just about every major retailer in the U.S. now has an indoor-grown salad program on its shelves.

“There are billions of dollars of market share to be captured with leafy greens,” he said. “It’s a big and growing segment and by far the lion’s share of the growth is coming from controlled environment local production like ours.”

Helping to solve ag industry, societal issues

In October 2020 Lightfoot was elected chair of the USDA’s Fruit & Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee (FVIAC). Formed in 2001, the purpose of the committee is to examine issues that impact the fruit and vegetable industry and to provide recommendations and ideas to the Secretary of Agriculture on how the USDA can tailor programs to better meet the needs of the produce industry. FVIAC currently has four working groups: food safety, production, labor and trade.

“During our committee meetings the members develop a series of recommendations on the matters that are within the preview of the USDA,” Lightfoot said. “These recommendations are relevant to fruit and vegetable companies in the U.S., including growers, shippers, distributors, retailers and other organizations that have a stake in this space.”

Controlled environment vegetable production could be instrumental in providing consumers with healthier, more nutritious, better tasting produce that is locally grown.

Lightfoot said the U.S. agriculture industry has an opportunity to help tackle some of the most pressing issues facing the U.S., including climate change and nutrition. 

“We have a society where the majority of Americans are obese or nearly obese and an extremely high percentage is diabetic or pre-diabetic,” he said. “The leading cause of death in the U.S. is from chronic diseases that are a result of our diets.

“We don’t need fancy technology to see the solution. Only about one in 10 Americans eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. Shifting our diets away from highly processed foods and toward more fruits and vegetables would reduce diet-related chronic diseases, reduce the costs of healthcare, and even improve our military readiness.”

Another area where Lightfoot said the agricultural industry could help resolve issues is related to climate change.

“It is well understood that the energy and transportation sectors are huge contributors to climate change,” he said. “In general, as a world we are making progress on those fronts. I’m not alone in driving an electric car and powering my home with wind-powered electricity.

“Less well understood is that the U.S. agriculture industry emits 10 percent of our country’s greenhouse gases. It is also one of the most vulnerable sectors to more volatile weather that results from climate change.”

Lightfoot is particularly concerned about the impact the agriculture industry is having on the country’s top soil and water resources.

“We’re mining our soil,” he said. “If we continue to degrade our soils, we only have about 50 seasons of soil left in the Midwest. Farming practices in the Midwest and California have also had a major impact on waterways, reducing sources of potable water.

Paul Lightfoot said just about every major retailer in the U.S. now has an indoor-grown salad program on its shelves.

“More biodiversity needs to be introduced into the areas of the West Coast that currently grow our salads. It has become a monoculture, which has removed the life from the soil and disrupted the water cycles. One idea would be to provide incentives to those farmers to “re-wild” some of that land, adding biodiversity to restore the soils and water cycles. That lost production capacity could be offset with the growth in high intensity indoor farms.”

Taking the CEA industry seriously

Lightfoot said his participation with FVIAC is beneficial to BrightFarms and to the CEA industry.

“It is important to remember that I am representing the entire fruit and vegetable industry in my role with FVIAC,” he said. “I care about BrightFarms like I care about a child, but in this role I will be speaking for the entire industry.

“The U.S. should be doubling the per capita annual consumption of fruits and vegetables. Because Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, our country is suffering.”

Lightfoot said his participation with FVIAC, along with being a board member of the United Fresh Produce Association, reflects the changes occurring in the CEA industry and how it is viewed overall by the agriculture industry.

“The CEA industry was considered fairly new and only recently has it become a bigger player,” he said. “These ag organizations recognize that and want our representation. We are glad to have it. We think we have an important voice and I’m glad to be able represent the CEA industry.”

For more: BrightFarms, Farm Support Center, Irvington, NY 10533; (866) 857-8745;;

This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas.

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