BrightFarms in Wilmington, which had its first harvest in May 2018, recently expanded to more than 100 independent retailers, adding to the Walmart stores it was already in. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Ty Greenlees
Photo: Ty Greenlees

Hydroponic farm expands to 100 independent grocers

A one-year old hydroponic farm in Wilmington has nearly hit full capacity as it expands its supply to 100 independent Ohio grocery stores, including Dorothy Lane Market.

The 120,000-square-foot BrightFarms operation can grow 2,500 pounds of fresh greens each day. Employing about 35 workers, sales from the 780 Davids Drive farm near the Wilmington Air Park accelerate each month as more consumers demand locally-grown produce, said Abby Prior, vice president of marketing for BrightFarms.

The largest store area consumers can find the pesticide-free greens at is Walmart, which BrightFarms entered in October last year. Recently the local company partnered with distributor Crosset Company to launch in 100 independent grocers in Ohio, including Dorothy Lane Market.

“We believe in what this new rise is with hydroponic growing because it’s pesticide free. It’s clean, very clean. I think it’s the way that the future is taking us,” said Michelle Mayhew, produce director at DLM. “Of course its a great fit for Dorothy Lane. Being a small, local company ourselves, we like to support one another.

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Mayhew first met BrightFarms CEO Paul Lightfoot at a produce conference where Lightfoot told Mayhew he wanted the greens that can be grown in as little as 13 days to be sold in Dorothy Lane Market stores. Mayhew visited the Wilmington farm and about two weeks ago DLM started selling five varieties of greens on its shelves.

“As we’ve expanded across the country, we’ve been energized by the growth potential of working with the independent market, which serves a large demographic of consumers that care about transparency in food,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “Our partnership with Crosset has been instrumental in gaining access to this valuable market.”

The growth brought on by Dorothy Lane and the other new grocery stores including Jungle Jims in Cincinnati, has put the Wilmington operation near its full capacity. But when buying land for a farm, BrightFarms typically buys twice what it needs to operate the original facility, Prior said.

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“Our goal is to be in every retail grocery store in the state of Ohio and to continue to expand and build the farm to accommodate that growth,” Prior said. “Our sales growth has been strong, and we are approaching capacity at the farm, but we always have the ability to grow to meet the demands of the local market.

The Wilmington operation has the opportunity to expand on the extra acreage it owns, with the potential to building a greenhouse that would double what the farm started with in 2018.

BrightFarms greens are fresher when they hit store shelves than most others, Prior said. From the time greens are harvested, usually on the West Coast, to the time they hit store shelves, about seven days have typically passed, she said.

Most include pesticides, including many outdoor-grown organic brands that can use some forms of pesticides and still get the organic label, she said.

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Because BrightFarms grows its kale, lettuce, spinach and other produce indoors, and locally, it doesn’t need to use pesticides and can have greens at the store less than 24 hours after harvest, Prior said.

The hydroponic farm, which Cox Enterprises invests in, also uses 80 percent less water, 90 percent less land and 95 percent less shipping fuel than the long-distant, field-grown produce, according to Bright Farm’s website.

BrightFarm has full-sized operations in Rochelle, Illinois, and Culpeper County, Virginia, and a smaller operation in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

“The reason consumers are passionate about what we’re doing is because it is a local product that is fresher, cleaner and safer than the products that we’re replacing in their stores,” Prior said. “And that’s a story that consumers feel passionate about and truly engage in.”

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