When I pulled up to the former paintball building in downtown Newark, New Jersey, in a block encased by brick warehouses and concrete, I hardly felt like I was about to tour a farm. But then, AeroFarms is not exactly your average farm.
Established in 2004 in Ithaca, New York, AeroFarms is as much a tech company as it is an agricultural one; but don’t let that scare you. Although their aeroponic, indoor growing method is decidedly unconventional, their vision for food and farming is all about getting back in touch with our food. “We want to be a force for good in the world,” their values statement reads; and that is precisely what they are.
AeroFarms chose to lay down roots in abandoned warehouse spaces within a city that has long struggled with access to fresh food. In addition to the repurposed paintball facility I toured, they have given new life to an old steel mill and a night club. Although their farm model can fit in virtually anywhere, they intentionally seek locations close to retailers and food distributors in order to decrease food miles and ensure the freshest, highest quality product possible.
But how, you might ask, could a vegetable possibly be fresh when it’s grown inside an inner-city warehouse? Don’t plants need sunlight, open air, and, um, soil to grow?
In fact, they do not.
Plants do need specific types of light, nutrients, and water, but they do not need to come from the sun, soil, rain, or irrigation systems. Those traditional sources are not even the most effective when you get right down to it. By moving their farms indoors, AeroFarms can pinpoint the exact spectrum of light (through LEDs), ratio of minerals, and amount of water that each one of their products requires for optimal growth and nutrition.
Indoor farming also allows them to seriously cut down on the risk of foodborne illnesses, like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria, which have become so ubiquitous in modern agriculture.
As Alina Zolotareva, dietitian and marketing manager for AeroFarms, explained to me, “Foodborne illnesses from vegetables are mainly a product of the practices needed to sustain large-scale commercial agriculture.” Without soil, contact with neighboring environments, or pesticides of any kind (because there aren’t any pests, period), the majority of food safety risks encountered in the industry are “simply not an issue with our system,” she added.
AeroFarms manages their product from seed to package, with ultimate traceability and an attention to detail that did not go unnoticed during my tour. They source only seeds that are not genetically modified (GMO), which start their lives on fabric made from post-consumer recycled plastic (water bottles). The germinated seeds are then transferred to a “module,” a stackable growing station that will provide it with all of the LED light and targeted nutrition it needs. After harvest, the cloths are sanitized and reused for a new batch of crops.
Not only is the aeroponic technology ideal for urban farming, food safety, and the health of the plants themselves, but it also has some pretty profound implications for the sustainability of the planet. Aeroponics uses 95 percent less water than field-farmed food and 40 percent less than hydroponics. It allows for product yields that are 75 times higher per square foot annually compared with conventional practices. And there are no concerns over land use and soil erosion, which is crucial when we consider the need for nutritious foods for a growing world population. There are no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, or GMOs involved, underscoring that we can feed the world without them.
Oh, and all of the issues we’ve been having with produce shortages as a result of weather issues? Not a problem for an indoor farm. Prices and supply can remain constant, no matter what Mother Nature throws our way.
(If you’re as sold at this point as I was and you live near Newark, find out where and how you can taste some of their fresh greens for yourself.)
Aeroponics. Technology. Indoor farming. It sounds suspicious; I get it. A “pure” farm should involve a bucolic field of crops, vibrantly green under a bright sun—not a cement-floored industrial warehouse where the “farmers” are scientists who wear white jumpsuits and hairnets. Right?
That’s the incredible thing about AeroFarms. They understand that our food environment is going the way of technology, and fast. Rather than push against it, they have found a way to harness it for the betterment of the entire planet.
“Innovation in the field of agriculture is an imperative—it’s not optional,” Zolotareva wrote to me at the end of our correspondence. “[We] need new ways of farming, fast. AeroFarms doesn’t operate like any other farm, and that’s a good thing.”
Indeed it is.