ND MBA alum brings the farm to a Brooklyn rooftop and fresh produce to eager consumers

Up on the Rooftop

By Alison Damast | Spring 2015

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It’s a blustery day in January, and icicles are hanging precariously from the rooftop of Gotham Greens, a commercial-scale greenhouse perched atop a Whole Foods in the once industrial Gowanus section of Brooklyn. To the northwest stretches the gray winterscape of downtown Manhattan; one story below in the parking lot, a sea of wind turbines and solar panels reinforce the notion of standing in a city proper — urban, industrial, mechanical, busy.

Inside the greenhouse, however, is an entirely different world. It’s a balmy 75 degrees. The air is moist and heavy, scented with spicy arugula, sweet Genovese basil and hearty butterhead lettuce, which grow in propagation trays that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Folk music blares from the speakers and a team of urban farmers wearing gloves quietly move around the 20,000-square-foot space picking greens, all of which will

soon be packaged and delivered to Whole Foods and other supermarkets and restaurants scattered throughout the city’s five boroughs. Often, they will hit the shelves by the end of the day.

“New York has really harsh winters and a very refined palate,” said Eric Haley (MBA ’07), the co-founder of Gotham Greens and the chief financial officer, giving a tour of the expansive greenhouse on a Wednesday morning in the middle of January. “It just became very apparent to us that the need for fresh produce far exceeds the supply. And the testament to that is that we’ve basically been sold out since day one.”

Haley, a former football player who stands at 6-foot-4, towers above the greens and tomato vines in the greenhouse on the roof of Whole Foods, where the company’s corporate office is headquartered. It’s the only commercial rooftop farm in the world integrated into a supermarket, and Haley has been involved in nearly every aspect of building and running it since it opened in 2013.

The Gowanus greenhouse, which recently celebrated its first anniversary along with the supermarket, is one of two rooftop greenhouses operated by Gotham Greens, and both are a model for how rooftop space in cities can be used to feed the growing appetite of urban consumers for local and farm-to-table produce, Haley said.

Like most of the team’s small corporate staff, Haley is dressed casually in a red plaid button-down shirt and jeans. A self-described foodie, he is passionate about food, and spends his spare time reading cookbooks, roaming the aisles of Whole Foods to look at new products and visiting farmers markets, he said. He has a laid-back and comfortable demeanor, but speaks passionately about the company’s quick rise from a pioneer in city farming to an industry leader that is now producing 300 tons of produce annually for New York City.