NEWARK, N.J.—Cinder-block walls still bear Day-Glo paint murals inside the former laser tag arena that once hosted epic battles among New Jersey teens who breathlessly chased each other in a high-tech version of the incredibly low-tech game of tag. Nowadays, AeroFarms has taken over the cavernous building to operate one of the country’s biggest vertical farms. It’s growing crops and improving the model of traditional agriculture by relying on the most high-tech tools available to reduce water and land use and to eliminate pesticide use.
That holds special appeal in an age when pesticides drift from field to field while demand for organic produce grows, and farmers increasingly struggle to get enough water to irrigate land in the face of years-long droughts. Behind an orange door here, AeroFarms has a temperature-controlled, pest-free world. Workers wear hazmat-like suits and hairnets as they tend to rows of leafy greens that stack all the way up to the ceiling in a place that has no seasons. These warehouses can grow organic produce in less space than traditional farmland uses and bring farms to unexpected locations, including urban food deserts.
Yet, expensive equipment and limitations on what crops can be grown have meant the promise of vertical farms remains a promise in many ways—and many such ventures have met the fate of yesteryear’s laser tag arenas. Where other vertical farms, including a quiet attempt by tech giant Google, have tried and failed, AeroFarms has been tinkering with the right formula.
The timing is right. By 2050, when more than 6 billion people are estimated to be living in urban areas, the global population will require about 60 percent more food than is currently in production, according to research published in the Journal of Agricultural Studies. Bringing production to cities could help feed a growing hunger for fresh, local food. And vertical farms are innovating in anticipation of the demand. TakePart visited AeroFarms for our "Design and Innovation" series, which highlights the people and cutting edge technology working to solve the world's most pressing problems.
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At a glance, not much has changed at AeroFarms since the first harvest in 2004: Seeds germinate in a patented cloth growing medium that looks like a fleece blanket, placed under bright lights on metal racks and stacked seven levels high; a water trough beneath each level irrigates 10 varieties of greens growing in the climate-controlled environment.
But looks are deceiving. This vertical farm is the latest iteration of a venture that has gone through frequent, expensive upgrades. The original equipment—the “legacy system,” as CEO David Rosenberg calls it—is collecting dust in storage.
The old system would still work, but without frequent upgrades, it would lack the same efficiency and added functionality that make the new system more productive.
“There is a romantic notion of vertical farming and an underappreciation for what it takes to make it work,” Rosenberg told TakePart during a recent visit to see what he’s calling version 2.5 of AeroFarms. “We’re constantly innovating to find tech that makes the systems more efficient and less expensive to operate.”
Even leading luminaries in innovation have tried and given up on vertical farms. At a TED Talk in April, discussing the “unexpected benefit of celebrating failure,” Google’s head of research, Astro Teller, revealed that the tech giant abandoned its vertical farm because the technology to grow staple crops like grains and rice doesn’t exist.
Yet, the value of figuring out vertical farming is undeniable. Even as Teller discussed Google’s failed venture, he noted, “One in nine people in the world suffers from undernourishment. So this is a moon shot that needs to happen. Vertical farming uses 10 times less water and 100 times less land than conventional farming. And because you can grow the food close to where it’s consumed, you don’t have to transport it large distances.”
One in nine people in the world suffers from undernourishment. So this is a moon shot that needs to happen.
Astro Teller, head of research, Google
With such lofty potential, it makes sense that vertical farming has experienced a growth spurt since its advent nearly a decade ago. Indoor agriculture was a $9 billion industry, with 15 commercial-scale vertical farms and rooftop greenhouses in North America, in 2014—and the number tripled in 2015. Hundreds more tinkerers and amateur enthusiasts have taken up vertical farming in shipping containers or warehouses.
Despite a meteoric rise, the basic premise of vertical farming hasn’t changed much: Farmers—who are more apt to have backgrounds in engineering and business than in agriculture—create optimal growing conditions in indoor environments to produce food. Technology and its associated costs have changed significantly since the first vertical farms started coming online. At AeroFarms, for example, traditional greenhouse bulbs were phased out in favor of full-spectrum LED lights that can be adjusted to provide each crop the optimal color light waves to maximize growth. Once pricey, LED light costs have dropped in recent years.
Major advances have been seen in the way crops are tracked and catered to. Just like the Old Farmer’s Almanac provided data to help farmers forecast planting and harvesting dates, smartphones now offer vertical farm operators innovations that improve monitoring and controlling variables—such as temperature, light, nutrients, and CO2 levels—that allow them to optimize growing conditions. At AeroFarms, reams of paper with a handful of data points on each crop were tossed aside for a high-tech, programmable logic controller that collects 30,000 data points on each harvest and is the heartbeat of the farm. The indoor climate is monitored and controlled via touch screens and smartphone apps, and unlike in 2004, when adjustments to temperature and light needed to be made on-site to the whole building, vertical farmers can focus on the needs of one rack at a time. Now, operators can make one-touch adjustments from anywhere, as a crop needs it.
It’s all those tiny measures and tweaks that are helping crops thrive—and AeroFarms’ growth. Microgreens and lettuces, such as baby arugula, are go-to crops for vertical farms because they command a premium price. AeroFarms started out trying to grow more than 200 varieties of crops before narrowing down to the 10 it now produces. It’s a small specialty market, so growers are actively experimenting with new crops to grow—and scale up with—in vertical farms.
“This is a very complex business, and the details matter,” said Rosenberg. “We’re marrying agriculture with infrastructure, and the thing that ties it all together is data analytics.”
AeroFarms opened its seventh farm in a 30,000-square-foot former paintball arena last summer and has a 70,000-square-foot vertical farm under construction in the same neighborhood, scheduled to come online in the summer. In 2017, the Newark-based company plans to open four more farms—two in the Northeast and two in international locations.
More innovations are being mapped and tested by Indoor Harvest, a Houston-based company that designs and builds vertical farms. CEO Chad Sykes compares the current state of vertical farming to the first personal computers: Like old computers that may still be taking up space in a corner of your garage, today’s vertical farms work, but innovation needs to continue to advance the technology.
“The industry is still not in a place where we can mass-produce a low-cost, high-volume product you can sell in places like Walmart, but the technology we’re developing and the lessons we’re learning will help us get there in the next 10, 15, or 20 years,” Sykes told TakePart.
Sykes agrees that data is the most valuable crop a vertical farm produces. His goal is to share the harvest with food banks, with those who struggle to find fresh produce in food deserts, and with others who struggle with food insecurity.
“There is a lot of excitement about vertical farms. You see all of these big amazing renderings, but that’s basically science fiction at this point,” Sykes said. “Vertical farming right now is a small niche, and it’s not a resolved science; there is still a lot of [research and development] left to do.”
Indoor Harvest partnered with the city of Pasadena, Texas; the Harris County BUILD Health Partnership; the Houston Food Bank; and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center to launch a demonstration farm later in the year to test the notion of reducing local food insecurity.
From there, they plan to share open-source data with other vertical farms—a rarity among tech start-ups that tend to be proprietary and competitive about the potential value of such big ideas.
But Indoor Harvest President John Choo believes providing data will help those launching vertical farms better understand the up-front costs and strategies for growing food that is healthy and yields a healthy profit.
It can also help avert disaster.
A total of $52 million in venture capital has been invested in indoor agriculture since 2011, including more than $31 million in 2014, according to industry estimates.
“As tech gets better, the margins get better, but it takes an enormous amount of capital to get started and keep [a vertical farm] running,” Choo said.
Even when the capital is raised, a large number of vertical farms have failed—some spectacularly. VertiCrop, a vertical farm in Vancouver, British Columbia, made headlines when its parent company, Alterrus, declared bankruptcy in 2014, less than two years after launching operations on the top level of a downtown parking deck.
VertiCrop attempted to sell its equipment on Craigslist for $1.5 million, according to news reports. Founder Clay Haeber declined to comment for TakePart on the reasons for the farm’s failure because of ongoing lawsuits, but government records show debts exceeded 3.8 million Canadian dollars, and according to an article in the National Post, the company posted losses of 54.2 million Canadian dollars before the end of its first full year of operation.
Small operators stand to learn a lot from vertical farms that have failed.
Ben Greene started growing greens in a vertical farm in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2014 and incorporating them in dishes served in his pop-up Airstream kitchen, The Farmery.
“The fixed costs have become much more approachable, but it’s still expensive,” he said. “Having access to data will make it easier to get funding to move the industry forward.”
To get started, Greene went grassroots and raised more than $25,000 on Kickstarter to purchase upcycled shipping containers and build a vertical farm—highlighting one way the high-tech future of farming can be people powered.