The Future of Farming Plants Roots in Newark

September 9, 2015

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By Lindsay Rassmann

This is what the future of agriculture looks like…and it’s in Newark.

It doesn’t look like much now, but this is the future site of the world’s largest indoor vertical farm.

The 69,000-square-foot aeroponic farm being built in the Ironbound section of Newark is expected to set a new standard in the production of controlled agriculture. Once up and running, AeroFarms anticipated production is 2 million pounds of baby leafy greens annually.

The $30 million project is backed by Goldman Sachs, Prudential and Newark developer RBH Group. The farm will be cash positive within the first year of operation. In fact, demand is already higher than capacity — leading them to take out another 30,000 square feet half a mile away.

“We’re excited about being in Newark because we have a long history here. One of the key things for us is thinking about how we can have access to the biggest marketplace. Newark has been tremendous from the mayor’s office, to the different community groups,” said AeroFarms Chief Marketing Officer Marc Oshima.

One of AeroFarms’ key missions to reduce and recycle and it can be seen in nearly every aspect of the operation. From the repurposed steel factory that will eventually serve as the company’s headquarters, to their research and development labs in downtown Newark which previously served as a former nightclub and department store. Murals, graffiti and even old retail display shelves are mixed in between new plant life and state-of-the art growing technologies.

Growing Jobs in Newark

Not only will AeroFarms be growing produce for the Newark community, they’ll also be providing nearly 80 jobs in a local economy where the unemployment rate is twice the national average.

“A big focus for AeroFarms is how on a local level we can help drive economic development. It’s about job creation. It’s about employment all year round. It’s about fair wages and benefits,” Oshima said.

Lifelong Newark residents David Catarino, 21, and Sayyid Johnson, 21, are employed at AeroFarms’ Research and Development Lab. A local non-profit, the Ironbound Community Corporation, helped them secure their jobs with AeroFarms.

“What I like most about working here is you learn a lot,” Johnson said. “The stuff I’ve been learning here for the past three months has been amazing. I never thought I’d be here.”

“It’s just, wow. I never thought that I’d see fun in growing plants before,” Catarino said.

Michael Barron, a plant scientist working at AeroFarms, says the locals have been great additions to the team.

“Within the first few weeks they were going through the processes. It’s really great to see them involved,” he said. “One of the things I really like is the focus in communities like Newark that don’t necessarily have the best reputations. We’re bringing jobs there — not just industry jobs, but clean jobs.”

This is Johnson and Catarino’s first serious foray into agriculture. Catarino jokes of a failed attempt to grow a tree, and Johnson said he’s previously helped in his grandfather’s garden.

Johnson was surprised by what he saw on his first day on the job.

“I didn’t know it was an aeroponic system. When I first got here I was like, ‘Where is the soil? This is so strange.’ So when I learned how they grow plants here I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life,’” he said.

The Benefits of Aeroponic Growing

AeroFarms uses a growing technology called aeroponics — which grows plants by misting the roots with nutrients. It’s a cousin to hydroponic gardening, with both farming methods requiring no soil. The misting results in the use of 95 percent less water than traditional farming and 20 percent less water than hydroponic growing.

“A lot of issues within the agricultural sector come from how land is poorly used or poorly managed. So in field agriculture there are a lot of artificial inputs, chemical inputs that you don’t necessarily want to see in the food that you consume,” Barron said. “In growing this way we’re able to use space a lot more wisely, and it also is more efficient in a lot of ways.”

The AeroFarms system takes a seed that would typically take 30 to 45 days to grow in a traditional field environment and grows it in nearly half the time: 12 to 16 days. How? By misting the roots and providing spectrum specific lighting. Using pinpoint accuracy, they’re able to provide plants with everything they need in order to maximize growing efficiency.

Additionally, because the plants are grown indoors and under such controlled conditions, seasonality and the need to use herbicides and pesticides are completely eliminated.

Oshima says that most produce comes from California or Arizona, depending on the time of year. Because of the time it takes to transport that produce across the country, by the time “fresh” produce is put out, it’s already five to seven days old.

“We’re going to have a shelf life product that’s setting a new standard: 16 days,” Oshima said. “It’ll be an opportunity for both the customer as well as the consumer to be able to enjoy. In terms of distribution, we’re looking at how we serve this community, and how we serve the overall New York metro area and partnering closely with the retail and service side.”

The Science Behind AeroFarms

It all starts with the growing medium, which like almost everything at AeroFarms, has been repurposed.

“It’s actually cloth,” said Oshima. “It’s a reusable medium so we actually seed, germinate, grow and harvest all on the same medium.”

The material is made from recycled plastic water bottles. Once a grow cycle is completed, the medium is able to be used over and over again. After harvesting, the roots and stems are scraped off and the cloth is good for another growing cycle.

The seeds are monitored and checked for a number of variables throughout the growing cycle — CO2, PH, temperature data and humidity, to name a few. The nutrients that they’re given come from yet another recycled source — a closed loop system that reuses the water used for misting.

“We have over 10 years of expertise in optimizing in taste, texture, nutrition and yield. Part of that are the growing algorithms that we’ve developed,” Oshima said. “They’re really the growing recipes — the combination of the lights and nutrients.”

“We’re really trying to understand the way that different lights affect the nutrition of the plant. In this case we’re growing under red and blue lights, so we’re trying to understand how plant nutrition changes. Typically what you’re going to find is that the plant nutrition increases and is enhanced with the use of red and blue lights,” said Marketing Manager Alina Zolotareva.

Some of the research AeroFarms is conducting is the first of its kind. “This is all uncharted territory,” said Barron. “I’ll be doing some background research for the experiments that we’re designing and if I can’t find something, it’s very frustrating. But then I have this moment where I’m researching and I realize it hasn’t been done before so the answers aren’t going to come from background research. There’s not going to be a lot of help that I can find from scholarly documents. We have to do it here.”

They collects over 10,000 data points per unit of measurement, or flat, and at any given moment they’re collecting thousands of data points to be logged and analyzed later, according to Barron.

At the Research and Development labs, the tallest flat is seven levels high. When the farm in the Ironbound opens, there will be systems 14 levels high.

AeroFarms is not satisfied to simply leave its mark on Newark. “It’s not just about a farm. We’re excited about what we’re doing here. But fundamentally it’s about how do we reform agriculture around the world?” said Oshima. “How do we democratize how we bring food to as many people as possible?”

A big focus on is how to create a greater connection with food and to emphasize not only how food is grown but how important it is to set a very high bar in terms of food safety. The last, and most important mission?

“Anyone who has ever tried these leafy greens, whether they like vegetables or not, has loved them because they taste so amazing,” said Zolotareva. “That’s the most important thing. If it doesn’t taste good, you’re not going to eat it.”

Additional reporting by Shoshanna Buxbaum.

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