A sustainable agricultural operation is vital to society. It not only provides a food source, but it also plays a pivotal role in the economy. But there are downsides to the current farming methods. For example, 70% of the world’s freshwater supply is used in agriculture, and, even more alarmingly, agriculture is one of the top causes of water contamination.
But what if you could farm with less water and without soil — or even without the sun? That’s exactly what AeroFarms, a vertical-farming company with global headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, has been doing for more than a decade. And it could very well be the future of agriculture.
AeroFarms uses aeroponics, substituting LED lights for sun and a special cloth for soil, and misting water and nutrients at the root structure. This method uses up to 95% less water than traditional farming and requires no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. It reduces growing time significantly, to about two weeks instead of 30 to 40 days.
Another pain point that AeroFarms is trying to solve for is spoilage. David Rosenberg, the cofounder and CEO, says that, typically, 60% of what comes off the farm in the leafy-greens category — AeroFarms’ main focus — is never consumed because it gets spoiled along the supply chain. The genesis for AeroFarms was, in part, about bringing farms to local communities to shorten the supply chain and reduce inefficiencies along the way.
“At its essence, vertical farming enables local food production at scale,” he says. And certainly making food available locally is another goal for the company, evidenced by its headquarters being in Newark, an urban area where fresh vegetables are sometimes difficult to find.
Technology and science come together
AeroFarms’ method of growing is rooted in science, of course, but bolstered by technology. For the past year, the company has been working with Dell Technologies to help AeroFarms’ research teams collect and analyze data that informs growing techniques.
For example, data shows that changing the lighting around a plant can alter the vitamin content in that plant. So the team can then determine the type of light needed to increase vitamin C content, or how to control the growing environment to optimize for taste, texture, and color. It could mean a more peppery arugula or a sweeter kale.
“Dell Technologies brings a huge amount of value to what we do on a daily basis by making interconnected devices that process data in real time,” April Agee Carroll, a VP of research and development at AeroFarms, says. “It helps us understand what is going on with our plants, with our environment, synergistically bringing it all together into one big data package. That’s the next generation of farming.”
The idea of a fully controlled farm like AeroFarms could influence agriculture worldwide, Rosenberg says, because it eliminates most concerns about food safety. “Whether it’s soil contamination or water contamination, they’re buffered from those issues,” he says. “And they know they have not only pesticide-free food, but what we think is the safest food in the world.”
AeroFarms has grown about 200 plants in 2018 alone, ranging from pak choi to kale to arugula. And while there are serious ambitions for growth, the team’s mission goes beyond just that.
“We feel we could grow anything, but it doesn’t mean we grow everything,” Rosenberg says. “We focus on where we could have an economic impact and provide value to society and to the planet.”