How Does This Garden Grow? To the Ceiling

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July 22, 2016

By: Tammy La Gorce

Steven Yglesias, owner of the popular tapas restaurant Mompou in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, knows his customers are food-savvy enough to want dishes made from the freshest local ingredients.

But that doesn’t mean he’ll buy any nearby vegetable. In fact, when Mr. Yglesias heard earlier this year that a high-tech, indoor farming facility was now growing greens just around the corner from Mompou, he was pretty sure he would never become a customer.

“I really needed to be convinced,” Mr. Yglesias said recently. In January, he walked to the nearby outpost of AeroFarms, a vertical farming company that started in 2004, and convinced, he was. It wasn’t so much what he saw that changed his mind, it was what he tasted.

“They’re producing these greens that taste the way greens are supposed to taste, the way I remember them tasting as a kid. There’s a flavor profile that includes a wonderful nutty flavor. And if you put them up against greens from another big supplier, there’s no comparison in the freshness factor and in visual appeal,” he said. “They won me over.”

Mompou has been using AeroFarms greens in its salads, including one with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and avocado on a bed of AeroFarms baby arugula, since February. Several other Ironbound restaurants are also AeroFarms converts, filling salad bowls with baby kale, spinach and lettuces grown without soil, and without ever seeing sunlight, by a team of highly ambitious farmers. Another AeroFarms location, set to open in Newark later this year, will have the capacity to produce 2 million pounds of baby greens per year.

“The seeds that we’re growing on these reusable cloths would take 30 to 45 days to grow in a field,” said Marc Oshima, AeroFarms’s chief marketing officer, on a recent tour of the facilities. “We can grow them in 12 to 16 days.” He then pointed out a 5 by 2½-foot cloth made of reusable plastic water bottles that was being planted, or “stuck,” with seeds by a Newark farmer.

Mr. Oshima, like everyone who crosses the threshold into the cavernous industrial farm from a front office and reception area, was wearing a hairnet. To his left, three 80-foot-long towers of plants, stacked seven layers high, shot upward toward the 24-foot ceilings. To his right, the walls were covered in neon décor left over from the previous tenant, a paintball operation — further indication that what takes place here is far from traditional agriculture. The 30,000-square-foot building, located on Ferry Street, has an earthy smell, but the lack of dirt combined with the hairnets and misting machines gives it an antiseptic feel.

AeroFarms moved to Newark from Ithaca, N.Y., in June 2015 and started growing plants under finely calibrated LEDs in August. Embedded among the neat, symmetric rows of plants are science-fiction-like monitoring devices.

“What you don’t see here are 30,000 different data-point sensors monitoring the environment, the temperature, the nutrients, the lighting” and other growth factors, Mr. Oshima said.

This is one of four AeroFarms sites in Newark. Five years ago, the company installed a small farm at Philip’s Academy Charter School, so students there could learn to farm indoors; Michelle Obama visited in April. When AeroFarms opened in the one-time paintball arena last year, it also opened a new research and development center in a former nightclub nearby. And by the end of this summer, a former steel mill will become a fully operational, 70,000-square-foot vertical farm, making it the largest in the country, Mr. Oshima said.

That farm, at 212 Rome Street, will include an education room that local residents, school groups and the agri-curious can visit to learn more about the benefits of vertical farming. The research center is outfitted with high-tech growing systems so AeroFarms can experiment with producing nonleafy crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, spices and berries. For now, though, greens are the focus. “We still have so much to optimize just with leafy greens,” said David Rosenberg, chief executive and co-founder.

And the perfect flavor profile is only one element of optimization.

“We have a social mission, and part of that is to go to underserved neighborhoods and eliminate food deserts,” Mr. Rosenberg said. That explains, in part, the decision to move to Newark, where historically, there has been a dearth of fresh food options in some neighborhoods.

AeroFarms is also trying to make greens more nutritious. By “pulling certain levers,” as Mr. Oshima explained — experimenting with fertilizer, light and growing time to maximize a plant’s nutrient absorption rate — the company is working at packing more good-for-you elements into each kale leaf, surpassing the abilities of traditional farms, which are reliant on sunshine and soil.

Optimization also extends to producing food without draining natural resources. The company uses 95 percent less water than traditional farms, Mr. Oshima and Mr. Rosenberg said. It also gets 75 percent more crops per square foot of growing space than traditional field systems, they said. The short growing time at AeroFarms means crops are harvested up to 30 times per year, rather than the two or three harvests that might take place on a traditional farm, Mr. Oshima said.

The controlled climate contributes to the bountiful yield: “We’ve taken the volatility of Mother Nature out of the equation,” Mr. Oshima said. “So we’re not dealing with drought, we’re not dealing with El Niño. And another benefit — we’re offering year-round employment.”

By the time the biggest Newark farm is fully up and running, AeroFarms will have introduced 78 jobs to the city, including seeders, harvesters and inspectors. There are also skilled workers like Alina Zolotareva, of Manhattan, a staff dietitian who doubles as a marketing manager.

“I was brought in to hyper-focus on the different ways you can prepare greens so you’re not always just getting a salad,” said Ms. Zolotareva, who, like Mr. Oshima, grazed on watercress and kale as if they were finger foods during the recent tour.

Lately, she has been refining a recipe for watercress soup. And correcting misconceptions about whether plants grown without sunshine can taste robust instead of anemic.

“Honestly, I’m a science person, so I love technology. But when I first heard about growing food this way I was suspicious,” Ms. Zolotareva said. Then she started nibbling. “What I found was that we brought to this a shared purpose and a shared passion for great food. It’s in there. You can taste it.”

AeroFarms, 400 Ferry Street, Newark; on-site market is open Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. For information: 973-466-3418 or aerofarms.com.

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