World’s largest vertical farm grows without soil, sunlight or water in Newark

AeroFarms has put $30 m into a green revolution that seeks to produce more harvests in less space, but whether its economically viable is an open question

An ambitious, almost fantastical, show of agricultural technology is expected to come to fruition this fall. From the remains of an abandoned steel mill in Newark, New Jersey, the creators of AeroFarms are constructing what they say is likely to be the largest vertical farm, creating two million pounds of leafy greens a year.

Whether it even qualifies as a farm is subject to savour. The greens will be manufactured using a technology called aeroponics, a technique in which harvests are grown in vertical stacks of plant beds, without soil, sunlight or water.

I eat some of the arugula here, told New Jersey Governor Chris Christie after a recent visit to a smaller AeroFarms facility in the neighborhood. It savours fabulous. No garmenting necessary.

The farm, built in the economically depressed New Jersey city promises new jobs, millions of dollars in public-private investment, and an array of locally grown leafy greens for sale. The company has spent some $30 m to bring to reality a new breed of green agriculture that seeks to produce more harvests in less space while minimizing environmental damage, even if it means totally divorcing food production from the natural ecosystem.

AeroFarms and other companies developing similar controlled growing climates claim to be transforming agriculture. Proponents of horizontal farming call it the Third Green Revolution, analogizing the developments to Apple and Tesla. They tout the potential of such technology to address food shortages as “the worlds population” continues to grow.

AeroFarms touts their products as free of pesticides and fertilizer, an attribute that investors suppose will attract customers who buy organic produce. We definitely watch the need for healthy food in the locals and Newark in particular, said Lata Reddy, vice president for corporate social responsibility at Prudential Financial, one of the investors in the project.

Is the arugula edible? Supporters say yes. Photograph: Malavika Vyawahare

But, food that is not grown in soil may not be palatable to many, even those who are opting for organic replaces. If you take the clay out of the organizations of the system, is it a legitimate organic system? questioned Carolyn Dimitri, director of the food examines program at New York University. The US Department of Agriculture does not consider the question of organic certification for growing methods that do not use soil, according to AeroFarms website.

Urban farming is trendy, Dimitri said. It remains an open question, she said, whether it will be economically viable. Prudential Financial has invested patient capital in the venture, which is used to finance social impact projects that are unlikely to yield benefits right away. There are no aeroponics projects of this scale but AeroFarms has piloted the technology at Philips Academy Charter School in Newark, where students are served greens grown at the school.

70 days the yield of traditional farms

Marc Oshima, the chief marketing policeman at AeroFarms, yanked open a tiny grey doorway in a back alley in downtown Newark that results into an old nightclub with vividly painted walls. In 2014, AeroFarms converted the space into a research and growth facility. Out there, in nature, we dont have control over sunlight, rainfall, Oshima told, here, we are giving plants what they need to thrive.

The moist sanitized air that envelops the R& D laboratory is missing one ingredient: the earthiness that pervades any agricultural operation.

At the repurposed sites, AeroFarms is pushing the limits of what David Rosenberg, the companys CEO, calls precision agriculture. The scheme trenches the romanticized ideal of agriculture, acres and acres of open fields dotted with men and women toiling in the sunshine, get their hands dirty, in favor of enclosed urban spaces where engineers, electricians and harvesters mill about, wearing protective clothing, masks, and gloves.

With its multicolored LED illuminates, computer screens lining the walls, and faithful preservation of club decor, AeroFarms research facility could easily pass off as a sci-fi themed club. It makes a befitting setting for a company that is promising to increase harvest yields by as much as 70 days is comparable to traditional field farms, without using any pesticides or fertilizers.

The fine print is that the productivity is calculated using square footage occupied and not the horizontal space utilized, attaining comparings with ground floor-only traditional farms fraught. And critics point out that no traditional farm that sizing comes with a price tag of over $30 m.

Much of the funding is coming from impact investing arms of big-ticket investors like Goldman Sachs and Prudential Financial. AeroFarms has leveraged its social impact goals to attract investments, promising to create jobs in a languish economy and furnishing fresh local render to the community in Newark.

For New Jersey, where unemployment rates have been persistently above the national median, the promise of new jobs and fresh investment has ensured buy-in from the nation. Christie, visiting the smaller aeroponics facility in March lavished kudo on the public-private partnership.

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority nearly$ 9m in incentives, stretched over 10 years, which includes a $2.2 m grant under the Economic Redevelopment and Growth program and $6.5 m in taxation credits.

The leafy greens fostered under multicolored LED lights. Photo: Malavika Vyawahare

AeroFarms currently utilizes close to 100 people, and is promising more jobs in the months to come as the company grows. Like other companies in this space, it is relying on productivity gains to offset high cost of expensive technology and emerge as a successful business.

But even growing success isnt a sure thing, let alone profit margins.

More like a factory than a farm

AeroFarms has grown over 250 types of leafy greens and sells more than 20 ranges of greens such as arugula, kale and spinach but hopes to expand their offering in the future. The strategy enforces height constraints; as of now, everything grown at vertical farms is a type of short-stemmed leafy green. And while controlled growing allows year-round production and protects these new-age farmers from the vagaries of nature, they are continuing contend with the possibility of crops dying from human error or technological malfunction.

A growing division under construction in the Newark facility. Photograph: Malavika Vyawahare

Rising from the middle of what used to be a dance floor is a gargantuan growing machine about 20 -feet tall. The rectangular apparatus is a stack of growing beds, each about 20 -feet long. It resembles a gigantic fridge missing its outer casing, but instead of being used to store greens, they are growing inside. Inhabiting patches on the seven-tier machine, are leafy greens of all ages: seedlings, shoots and fully grown plants. Freshly minted leaves fluttering gently in an artificially conditioned breeze.

Above each bed are column of LED illuminates, bathing the plants in a sharp white light. When plants photosynthesize they convert light of certain wavelengths into chemical energy, and store it for future employ. This light does not necessarily have to come from the sunlight, Oshima explained.

Under the bright lights the plants appear to be embedded in crumpled soggy blankets. The utilize of growing media other than soil is not unique to aeroponics; planting seeds in cotton has been a popular idea for many local schools science project. In recent years a related technology called hydroponics, that uses water as a medium to grow plants, has caught on. But Oshima is quick to distinguish aeroponics from hydroponics emphasizing that their technology is superior. And the key to the technology, is what happens for the purposes of the microfleece membrane. If peeled it would expose bare roots enveloped by nutrient-rich mist.

Breaking down the process. Photograph: PR

Farming in artificially created conditions is itself not an entirely novel idea. Similar techniques are used in extreme environments where growing food the traditional route is not possible, including the United States South Pole Station, where researchers live in a isolated hostile conditions for months at a stretch, and the International Space Station has its own space garden deploying a growing system called VEGGIE.

The rationale for using similar techniques in places where land has for centuries been tilled to grow food emerged at the turn of the century in response to urbanization and population growth. The worlds population will bloat to 9 billion by 2050 and 70% of people will reside in urban areas, according to the World Health Organization. Using large swathes of land for growing food will not be an option, those in favour of vertical farming argue.

Dickson D Despommier, a microbiology prof and a top proponent of vertical agriculture, insures the agricultural technology not just as a response to food crisis but also as a means of returning land that was previously used for agriculture to its natural state.

We are just academics, we just sit here and watch these notions grow, Despommier said on a podcast he hosts on urban agriculture, marveling at the dimensions of the new operation.

AeroFarms has built its sales pitch to investors around more pressing and specific fears like land and water famines, meeting the demand for locally-grown greens, and climate change. Growing and selling locally means emissions associated with transportation are reduced. What remains unclear is how the company accounts for emissions arising from the farms substantial energy wants.

Vertical farming cropping up around the world

In the last decade a few bold schemes have built on this seminal notion, with the first commercial vertical farm put up in Singapore in 2012. Japan boasts of its own semiconductor factory-turned-lettuce farm, an idea that gained some traction after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in 2011 uncovered the susceptibility of arable land to long term contamination. In the UK Growing Underground has converted a world war two bomb shelter in London into a hydroponics farm.

In the US at least five new commercial vertical farming operations have emerged over the past five years that use a range of controlled growing technologies to let year-round harvests of harvests that typically have a short growing season in Michigan, and more efficient water use in California. At Ouroboros Farm in California, for example, hundreds of fish are fed organic feed, the waste produced by them is used to nourish seedlings and plants floating on raft beds above the fish tanks.

Some experts like Dimitri believe that such big urban farms are so far afield from traditional ones that farm may not be the word for them. It is more like a factory than farm, she told, almost like broiler production, very controlled and regimented.

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