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INNOVATION Future farm Indoor agriculture is happening today in downtown Newark

A worker maintains growing towers at AeroFarms in Newark.-(PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON)

Sitting among the faded, brick industrial buildings of Newark’s Ironbound section is a warehouse on Ferry Street, one that is all but nondescript, save for its paneled walls and two-tone exterior.

Inside the warehouse is something far more impressive: a vertical farm, with tall “growing towers” that stretch 80 feet from end to end. Each tower has seven levels, with long rows of bright LED lights and planting trays that are misted by water and nutrients — all helping AeroFarms create a better growing environment for arugula, kale and a host of other leafy greens.

“With this way of growing, the vertical nature, we can grow faster because we’re optimizing the plants,” said Marc Oshima, AeroFarms’ co-founder and chief marketing officer. “So we can grow in half the time that it would take out in the field.

“So, when you combine all that together, it means we have 75 times greater productivity per square foot annually than we would out in the field, and 10 times more than a greenhouse.”

AeroFarms, which moved into 400 Ferry St. less than a year ago, started growing in August and has been selling since September. As it stands today, the system inside the 30,000-square-foot building is capable of producing 100,000 pounds of leafy greens and herbs annually.

But that’s just a small taste of what you can expect in the coming years.

Two years after moving to Newark from Ithaca, New York, the 12-year-old company is preparing for a major expansion. By May, it will open a 70,000-square-foot facility a half-mile away that is being developed by RBH Group, capable of producing as much as 2 million pounds of leafy greens annually.

That would make it the world’s largest indoor vertical farm, helping the company meet what it says is a swelling demand for its product. AeroFarms currently sells to area ShopRites, restaurants and schools, with the idea that consumers increasingly prefer locally sourced food.

While its technology works with other crops, co-founder and CEO David Rosenberg said leafy greens are a perfect fit because virtually all such crops come from either Salinas, California, or Yuma, Arizona. They also have a short shelf life and high rates of contamination, he said, noting that some 62 percent of what is harvested doesn’t get consumed, “so there’s a real supply chain issue with a highly perishable product.”

Equally important — from a business standpoint — is that they have a high price per pound.

“When we’re integrating or implementing a new technology, there’s often a price premium until the cost curve of that new technology gets fully rolled out and you get economies of scale,” Rosenberg said. “So, in that early stage, you want a product that has a high price point to absorb that cost premium.”

It’s a promising outlook for a business that started with aspirations of preserving water, Rosenberg said. Growing out of technology developed by former Cornell University professor Ed Harwood, the company’s chief science officer and third co-founder, an AeroFarm uses 95 percent less water than traditional land farms.

It also uses zero soil and pesticides, Oshima said, “so it’s really setting a new stage for how you manage some of those precious resources.”

What’s more, each harvest comes with 30,000 data points that help the company make each harvest better than the last — giving it insights about how to influence taste, texture, nutrients and other traits by tweaking the growing environment. It all provides a steady workload for the teams of engineers, scientists and technology experts it has on staff.

“When you think about innovation, this is really blazing a new trail for leveraging science, leveraging engineering, leveraging the math behind it,” Oshima said. “Our horticulture room kind of looks like a statistics meeting.”

While its co-founders declined to discuss sales or revenue figures, Oshima said each indoor vertical farm is cash-flow positive within a year of opening. And AeroFarms in recent years has secured the backing of the likes of Prudential Financial, Goldman Sachs and RBH Group — the developer of its new facility, led by Ron Beit — paving the way for the growth plans it has in mind.

That includes adding some 40 employees in the coming months to its current workforce of about 70.

And with its preference for selling within a 50-mile radius, the company is looking at building farms in other markets in the Northeast, such as Philadelphia. Rosenberg also said AeroFarms is now exploring sites in Camden and Pennsylvania.

Its founders are also thinking globally, eventually, but they’re doing so from a city that is certainly happy to have them. They’re also happy to be there.

“We wanted to build a company that has a positive impact on society and go to areas where we could have an impact on food deserts, on job creation and revitalizing a tougher neighborhood that’s having a lot of trouble,” Rosenberg said. “And Newark fit a lot of our aspirations of where we could be impactful, while having a great market.”

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On Twitter: @joshburdnj

Joshua Burd

NJBIZ Business Events