On Thursday, the startup AeroFarms broke ground on the world’s largest vertical farm, housed in a former steel mill.
The 69,000 square foot space is slated to grow 2 million pounds of leafy greens a year — all without using a speck of dirt or a ray of sunlight.
Founded in 2004, AeroFarms started in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, as chief science officer Ed Harwood was teaching at Cornell University.
The company gets its name from its clever method of growing crops: aeroponics. Instead of placing them in soil, plant roots are dangled in the air, where they’re sprayed with nutrients. LEDs take the role of the sun.
Rather than being spread over an outdoor farm, crops can be stacked on one another in the heart of the city — making the logistics of agriculture a whole lot cleaner.
“We’re trying to disintermediate what is a complex and lengthy supply chain,” CMO Marc Oshima tells Business Insider.
The plan is to “bring the farm to where the consumer is, and do it a commercial way where we’re competing with the field farmers,” he says.
Oshima says that vertical farming has a number of advantages over conventional farming:
• Healthy food options can be created within the city, not shipped into it.
• While growing outside provides two to three growing seasons, vertical farming allows for up to 30 crop turns a year.
• Vertical farming allows for up to 75 times greater productivity per square foot than traditional farming.
“It’s game-changing when you think about this on an annualized basis,” Oshima says.
But there are concerns about how environmentally friendly the method really is.
According to research cited by BusinessWeek, “a single head of lettuce grown under artificial light produces enough carbon dioxide at the average power plant to fill three 55-gallon drums.”
When asked about those concerns, Oshima said that “these are not easy exercises.”
The company is taking a number of steps to become more sustainable, including repurposing waste heat made by turbines, and feeding the carbon dioxide produced by the farm to plants. To that end, AeroFarms is one of the few agricultural businesses to make the Ellen MacArthur Foundation list of 100 circular (or sustainable) companies.
Why the move to Newark, which has been recently pegged as “the next Brooklyn” despite having one of the highest murder rates in America and one-in-four residents living in poverty?
Oshima says that AeroFarms wanted to move to the New York area to show what the company was doing and recruit talent.
The company already had a research farm in downtown Newark — part of the Philips Academy Charter School — with a growing system right inside the dining hall. That partnership lead to a lot of good will and community feedback, and so Oshima says the Mayor’s Office became excited at the prospect of creating more healthy foods and jobs in the community.
It will also be AeroFarms’ global corporate headquarters.
But Newark is just the beginning: Oshima says AeroFarms will also launch elsewhere next year.