New York startup Aerofarms has built the world’s largest vertical farm in Newark, New Jersey. A former steel factory was converted to house the 69,000 square foot farm.
250 different kinds of greens and herbs grow in plant beds stacked in 12 layers from floor to ceiling. The beds are lit with LED lights that mimic natural sunlight and sensors track the plants’ growth. Oxygen is circulated through mini-fans at the end of every plant bed. Seeds are poured onto a tray covered with a recyclable cloth made from recycled plastic bottles.
The vertical farm doesn’t require any soil, pesticides, or sunlight to grow crops. Aerofarms uses a method called "aeroponics," conceived by a Cornell professor who works with the company, that leaves plant roots exposed so they can be sprayed with a mist filled with nutrients. They claim to use 95% less water than traditional outdoor farming.
Vertical farms have grown more popular over the years as a way to solve food shortages while farming efficiently. More than 80% of land suitable for crops is already in use. Continued large-scale agriculture contributes to global deforestation, pollution, and climate change.
Thousands of vertical farms are operating mostly in countries with high population densities such as South Korea, Japan, China and the Netherlands.
Sky Greens, the world’s first commercial vertical farm, opened in Singapore in 2012. Japan is home to the second largest vertical farm, developed by General Electric (GE), that yields up to 10,000 heads of lettuce a day. They have expanded to Mongolia, where vegetables are often imported from Europe due to long winters that shorten the outdoor growing season.
There are some drawbacks of vertical farming, including a high electrical cost and risk of a power outage that could shut down the entire system.
The highly regulated nature of indoor vertical farming allows farmers to constantly improve the plant growing process and produce continuously huge harvests of locally grown vegetables. Plants that normally take more than a month to grow outside can have a 12 to 16 day crop cycle in the vertical farm.
The Newark, NJ location will have up to 30 harvests a year and produce almost 2 million pounds of lettuce when the facility reaches full capacity in 2016. The produce will be sold locally in New Jersey and New York.
The company hopes to produce more locally grown vegetables while creating more green jobs in the process.
"Cities have a lot of mouths to feed. We have population growth, urbanization, and we need better ways to feed humanity that are sensitive to the environment," AeroFarms' CEO and founder David Rosenberg told Tech Insider.
Being able to construct “farm land” in urban areas could potentially alleviate some of the environmental impact of farming and global food shortages at the same time.