The AeroFarms building itself defines “nondescript.” When I walked to what Google Maps assured me was the farm, I saw two guys repairing a gate to a parking lot, with a largish greenish building behind it. “Is this AeroFarms?” I asked, feeling dubious. “I don’t know what it is,” said one guy. “Maybe,” said the other. I walked inside the gate.
That largish, greenish building is actually a 70,000-square-foot greenhouse built on the site of a former steel mill. The detritus from the steel mill past surrounds the building, but the farm itself is new, immaculate, and deliberately understated.
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AeroFarms feeds the public, but the farm itself is closed to the public. Despite its gritty surroundings, the building houses a fragile ecosystem that must be protected from outside germs and bacteria. Guests and workers who do enter must wear pants and closed shoes, no earrings, and no jewelry with stones. Those who want to go farther into the farm must first wash their shoes in a soapy solution and get cleaned by an air shower. Hands must be scrubbed. Then hair is covered, both scrubbed hands are gloved, and jackets are placed over clothes. Safety glasses must be worn as well. Cameras are not allowed. It’s like suiting up to enter a lab to create a vaccine for the superflu. It’s a far cry from visiting a standard farm where the main concern would be getting muddy.
There’s no mud at AeroFarms. In fact, there’s no soil at all.
AeroFarms grows its fields of vegetables in trays that go from floor to ceiling. The seedlings grow on a special cloth that can be cleaned and reused over and again. Under the cloth, the plants’ roots grow in a rich cocktail of nutrients and water. This system is called aeroponic, as it requires no soil whatsoever. Scientists who work at AeroFarms constantly monitor 17 plant nutrients, adjusting carefully so that plants deliver maximum nutrition and superior taste.
The farm obtains seeds from a variety of sources and they can grow plants of any size—from microgreens to sunflowers, according to Marc Oshima, Chief Marketing Officer and Co-Founder of AeroFarms. The growing trays can be adjusted based on what space the plant needs. “We can grow anything,” says Oshima. “Vine crops, short stem leafy greens. We have space for full lettuce heads.”
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The system was created by Ed Harwood, an animal scientist with a PhD in dairy science. While working at Cornell’s famed agricultural school, Harwood designed the signature microfleece for the seeds, which allows the farm to forego both soil and pesticides. None of the foods produced here need to be washed, since there is no layer of dirt or pesticide that needs to be triple-washed, blasted, and bleached off.
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The results are staggering. Oshima explains that their aeroponic misting system uses “95% less water than the field, and our nutrient mix in the water means we use 40% less fertilizer.” The growing trays look nothing like what you’d see at a field farm. But AeroFarm’s footprint on the Earth is far less. AeroFarms sold a growing tower farm to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that actually pulls in water directly from the vapor in the air.
Inventor Harwood not only has degrees in agriculture, but also in artificial intelligence. The automated indoor lighting system is where his AeroFarms gets positively visionary. If you look carefully at the photos of their lighting system, most of the lights look like normal LED lights, emitting a white glow that simulates light emitted by the Sun. If you know your Newton, you know that light only appears white and actually contains the electromagnetic spectrum. Look closer at the photos, and you’ll see that the lights only produce blue and red, the colors that best support plant growth.
In fact, all of the lights at AeroFarms have the green and yellow removed from the light spectrum. The yellow light is the longer wavelength light that is visible on Earth, not needed by plants. The green light is used by insects to reproduce. There are no insects inside the greenhouse, and the redundant cleaning methods virtually ensure that no workers bring any inside. Even if you had a fruit fly infestation at home and carried in some of the eggs accidentally, the lack of green light keeps pests from reproducing.
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The lights produce “the exact photosynthesis that’s needed,” explains Oshima, and if they leave the lights on long enough, plants can grow from seed to edible green in 15-17 days. That rate is fast enough that it can outpace the reproductive cycle of insects as well.
Commercial growers have created both hardy, durable foods for the world, as well food that cannot survive and adapt. The drumbeats have sounded for the second arrival of a banana blight that will eventually kill the world’s supply of Cavendish bananas, just as the Gros Michel banana went extinct in 1965. AeroFarms has a plan to avoid the monoculture trap.
“We grow about 259 varieties of lettuce,” says Oshima. “Our goal is to celebrate a rich bioversity and bring back things that have been lost.”
Since plant blights are passed through microbes in the soil—the Panama disease that killed off the Gros Michel is still alive and active in soil decades later—the AeroFarms model avoids soil-borne illnesses and can safely maintain both seed banks and phenomenal species diversity.
Ultimately, the goal of AeroFarms is to be a commercial grower that is focused on nutrition, taste, and a future free of pesticides.
“We want to feed the masses, and not be a niche product,” says Oshima.
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Accordingly, AeroFarms sells to a wide range of suppliers, including Shoprite, Whole Foods, food service, schools, and they operate a local farm stand. New York chefs buy form AeroFarms because the food they produce is actually delicious and dependable, since the outside weather doesn’t exist inside the building. It’s always sunny on Rome Street. Store and chefs can request specific types of plants, since the system can support plants all year round and the scientists on staff optimize flavor and nutritional value.
“We are a mission-driven organization,” Oshima says, and AeroFarms is an excellent neighbor. Since they built the $39 million structure in 2012, they’ve added four different farms in Newark and foster goodwill in the community. They hire locally, produce acres of food in a literal food desert, and plan to bring their urban Edens to other cities across the country.
Additionally, AeroFarms is now working with agricultural programs at MIT, Harvard, and Cornell to bring technology and new farmers to learn about indoor farming. In recent years, we’ve seen disastrous consequences in California that occurred when farmers tap into ancient aquifers to get water. The droughts increase. Wildfires increase. With a looming water and arable land crisis, this indoor paradise of microfleece, lights, and growing trays seems revolutionary.