A century ago, Newark, New Jersey's Ironbound neighborhood was a bustling center of industry, home to factories that mixed up Benjamin Moore paint, brewed Ballantine beer, and, of course, manufactured the steel and other metals from which the district takes its name. Today, most of the area's industry has dried up, and many of the former factory sites have been converted into modern homes and apartments. But the neighborhood stands to regain some of its productive past with the arrival of AeroFarms, a ten-year-old aeroponics company that's moving into a huge former steel factory to grow level upon level of quick-to-mature, sustainable greens and herbs.
AeroFarms was started in 2004 by Ed Harwood, a former professor at Cornell's School of Agriculture who developed the company's low-waste, high-yield growing system. Aeroponics is both soilless and sunless, and can be thought of as next-level hydroponics: Instead of utilizing gallon upon gallon of water to grow plants, AeroFarms' system sprays plants with a nutrient-rich mist. Seeds are sown, germinated, and grown on reusable sheets of fabric, which are stretched out over trays that are stacked vertically and will fill 69,000 square feet of space in the Newark factory. LED lights stand in for the sun, and their strength is adjusted according to the plants' maturity.
Marc Oshima, AeroFarms' chief marketing officer, says these combined factors make the AeroFarms system much more efficient than traditional agriculture.
"We're 75 times more productive per square foot annually than the field, and even ten times more productive than a hydroponic greenhouse," he says. "We use over 95 percent less water than growing out in the field."
"Even versus a hydroponic grower, we're able to use less water and less nutrients, and also have a much faster growing process," Oshima continues. "We can take that exact same seed that, out in the field, would take 30 to 45 days to grow, and we can grow it in 12 to 16 days. We're talking about between 22 and 30 crop turns a year; out in the field, you're lucky if you can get three crop turns."
Aeroponics can be used to grow any type of produce, Oshima says, but over the years AeroFarms has zeroed in on short-stemmed leafy greens, in order to maximize the amount of trays that can be stacked up inside the vertical farm. (Plants like tomatoes and peppers, for example, grow too tall to be efficiently stacked.) The Newark farm will grow hundreds of varieties, Oshima says, and even conventional growers have taken note.
"We've had farmers from Salinas come visit us—third-generation farmers who know product and know farming," Oshima says. "They come in, they see our product, and they touch the product. And they're just really impressed."
AeroFarms already has a relationship with the city of Newark. Four years ago, it created a small indoor farm at Phillips Academy, a charter school there. Oshima says the company plans to bring both jobs and access to fresh, healthy food to Newark. In 2012, 44 percent of the city's children lived below the poverty line; over the past decade, unemployment rates there have been about twice the national average.
"One of the things that we're excited about is how we can increase access to healthy foods," Oshima says. "And we're creating jobs. We're working closely with the Ironbound Community Center, in terms of sourcing people from the community to work in the farm."
But Oshima sees AeroFarms' highly productive form of farming—the Newark site will eventually produce 2 million pounds of greens annually—as capable of reaching far beyond New Jersey.
"What's exciting about what we're doing is that we're very much helping to address a global issue," he says. "We have increasing urbanization, population increases, food safety, and food security issues. We have a tremendous amount of interest in helping to solve these problems."