BrightFarms

For pulling gas-belching 18-wheelers off the road.

Farmers markets are great, but most people shop at grocery stores. BrightFarms works with the big stores to grow lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs on-site (or nearby) in large hydroponic greenhouses, which cuts transportation costs and waste and adds days to the shelf life of perishable foods in customers' refrigerators.

The urban agriculture startup operates one such farm north of Philadelphia. Three more are expected to open this year, including a 100,000-square-foot rooftop farm—the largest in the world—in Brooklyn's Sunset Park, which should produce 1 million pounds of produce annually. The company has announced plans to develop a similar-size operation in Washington, D.C.

The real innovation is BrightFarms' business model. Retail partners such as A&P and Cub Foods don't pay for construction of the greenhouses or manage the crops. BrightFarms provides a farmer. In exchange, the retailers sign a 10-year contract, agreeing to buy produce at prices that don't exceed inflation. The long-term commitment is unusual, but it provides security that's hard to come by in an industry where weather routinely wreaks havoc on produce prices, cutting into grocers' notoriously thin margins.

Because BrightFarms' vegetables spend less time in transit, they arrive in stores fresh and stay fresh longer. That's the sort of a payoff that retailers as well as shoppers don't forget.

[Photo by Christopher Boffoli]