It looks like a war zone, not the future of sustainable farming.
Two 20-foot-tall piles of razed rubble, twisted metal, and warped wood are the backdrops. A gnarled bicycle and dozens of unmatched shoes nearly hidden by overgrown prairie grass and weeds litter the ground between three large, white shipping containers that belong more on a freighter than in a city lot on the edge of Washington's southeastern border.
But in a few months, this abandoned lot in the Anacostia neighborhood of the capital city will become home to the world's largest urban greenhouse, eventually producing tons of produce, creating dozens of new jobs, and providing fresh food to areas in need.
The 100,000-square-foot greenhouse (close to 2.3 acres) will produce 1 million pounds of produce—including tomatoes on the vine, leafy-green mixes, and a variety of herbs—for 30 Giant grocery stores in the greater D.C. area. It's being funded by New York-based BrightFarms, which builds and runs greenhouses and rooftop farms that then sell produce to local grocery chains.
So far, BrightFarms either has built or plans to build greenhouses and rooftop farms in New York, Chicago, St. Paul, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Kansas City. Their first greenhouse—a 56,000-square-footer—is in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Usually, Giant and other grocery stores have highly perishable produce shipped from far away. That requires extensive measures to keep the produce fresh, adding transportation and energy costs. Just take lettuce: It's usually grown in Arizona or California, and shipped in near-freezing trucks that have to travel thousand of miles.
Add that to the common problems facing cities—poorer neighborhoods can be food deserts, with fewer grocery stores offering fresh produce—and these greenhouses are a competitive option for local grocers who want to change the way that produce is grown and distributed in this country.
"We can make a meaningful impact on the food supply chain and help improve it, lessen the environmental impact, and improve the health, the safety, and the quality of our produce that's available," said Toby Tiktinsky, BrightFarms' director of business development.
The greenhouse will provide 20 to 25 permanent jobs in D.C. and more than 100 construction jobs, according to BrightFarms.
Part of the construction work will be to clear the mess that is the current spot. Owned by the District of Columbia, the site has been used by the Department of Parks and Recreation for storage and by the Department of Transportation for temporary leaf collection. For the last several years, however, construction companies not associated with the District have used it for illegal dumping.
The neighborhood, too, has had its fair share of issues—high unemployment, increased crime, and a lack of fresh-food options. BrightFarms kept this in mind when it decided to partner with D.C., Tiktinsky said.
"We consciously target areas where we can make a positive difference in the community in terms of providing jobs and also healthy produce," Tiktinsky continues. "We find a site that's underutilized and add value to it."
BrightFarms is partnering with the city's Department of General Services and the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation to build the greenhouse. Part of the deal to bring the greenhouse to D.C. also involves selling some of the produce to local groups at a subsidized rate.
The space will also be used for local students to learn about sustainable farming through tours and classroom tutorials. "It's bringing a farm to the part of the city that really hasn't experienced that before," said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant.
Construction is scheduled to start in late summer and will take four to five months to complete, transforming this municipal wasteland into the latest example of sustainable urban development.