New greenhouse could shake up local fresh produce market

A proposed greenhouse to be built on the riverfront will supply tomatoes, lettuce and herbs to local supermarkets. And urban gardening experts say its part of a growing local market for locally-grown produce and evolving supply chain for its distribution.

A giant new greenhouse on the riverfront that will produce a million pounds of produce a year, and officials say that’s just a start.

That food bounty will go mostly or entirely to a local grocery chain, but it will shift the markets.

City Councilman Scott Wagner predicted fast changes and said he is promoting institutional buying of fresh and local produce.

“The key is the supply,” he said, “Can you generate the supply?”

Maybe a city marked by sprawl could use vacant urban land for gardens. And Wagner said jobs could be created in the process.

The city could be one produce buyer, Wagner said. The school district could be another and hospitals yet another.

Paul Lightfoot, CEO of BrightFarms, said his new greenhouse might be able to accommodate some sales to the school district.

But the bulk of his tomatoes, lettuce and herbs will go to a supermarket chain, giving him guaranteed income to make the project financially stable.

But if one chain sells more local produce, others could be pressured to sell more as well, said Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate Kansas City.

Her group has two small produce growing operations in Kansas City, Kan., and is trying to start one in Midtown.

Cultivate KC would like to provide an urban garden and orchard as part of a developer’s pending proposal to turn Westport High and Middle schools into a mix of a private school, an institute for community non-profits and live/work housing space.

At this point, Kelly said, no one knows how the market will shake out when the riverfront’s 100,000-square-foot greenhouse starts.

“The local food movement nationwide is in major flux, it’s growing like crazy and that is true in Kansas City as well,” she said. “You see more local produce than you used to so there is a kind of mutual education and learning going on.”

Farmers sometimes contract to sell fresh goods to grocery stores and to restaurants, she said.

But Kelly said two related issues are in play: There are not enough growers feeding the fresh food market and grocery chains are not willing to pay higher prices for local produce.

She thinks the flood of produce from the greenhouse – enough to supply vegetables to 5,000 people a year – will lift the fresh-and-local boat.

“More growers means more consumers and more markets,” she said.

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