From the outside, the AeroFarms headquarters looks like any other rundown building in downtown Newark, N.J. It used to be a store, and more recently a nightclub. Now it's a test farm.
"My favorite is the mustard green that's called a Ruby Streak, which is this leaf right here," says AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg, sampling some of the company's greens. "And my second favorite is cress, watercress, which is this guy right here."
The company's products come in dozens of shades of green and purple. They grow in long, narrow beds stacked seven layers high, more than 30 feet up in the air. They're all under intense LED grow lights, while their roots are bathed in a nutrient-rich mist.
"The plants are really getting a white-glove lifestyle experience," says Rosenberg. "They have people catering to their every need."
Rosenberg says AeroFarms can control the light, temperature and nutrition these plants receive. The company plans to apply what it learns here at a new, 70,000-square-foot, $39 million facility location at a former steel mill in Newark, currently under construction. When completed, it could be the largest indoor vertical farm in the world, AeroFarms says.
AeroFarms joins a growing list of working vertical farms in Asia, Europe and the U.S. The idea was first popularized a decade ago by Dickson Despommier, professor emeritus at Columbia University and the author of a book called The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century.
"The best reason for doing this, of course, is to supply fresh produce for people who live next to where you farm it," says Despommier. "And the less impact on the land, the better."
Supporters of vertical farming say it uses less energy transporting food to market, while also requiring less water and pesticides than traditional agriculture. But skeptics say there's one glaring problem.
"The fact that plants need sunlight to grow has not changed," says Ted Caplow, an entrepreneur and co-founder of the company BrightFarms. BrightFarms is a competitor to AeroFarms in the sense that it's also focused on growing leafy greens indoors. But rather than using LED lights, it's using the natural light of the sun. And Caplow says vertical farmers who use these lights are turning their backs on a free source of energy that plants have been using for millions of years.
"If you wind up using more energy to light the plant than it would've cost to truck them across the country," Caplow says, "then at least from an energy standpoint, you're not coming out ahead."
Vertical farmers counter that they can get their crops to grow faster than farmers who depend on the sun. They add that LED bulbs are getting more efficient all the time.
But vertical farmers still face some other big questions too, like: Can they control pests? And can they afford enough workers to harvest the crops?
So far, vertical farms tend to specialize in only a few crops. "It's always leafy greens," says Stan Cox, a senior scientist at the Land Institute, a nonprofit organization in Kansas devoted to sustainable agriculture. "The reason is, if you try to grow grains or fruits or vegetables, like beans, tomatoes, potatoes, indoors out of the sunlight, the energy requirements for lighting become impossible."
It also helps that baby kale and microgreens fetch top dollar at high-end grocery stores and restaurants. But AeroFarms' Rosenberg insists his company wants to feed more than just foodies across the Hudson River in New York City.
"We set out to build AeroFarms not to build one farm, not to build a farm for just the rich, but to really change the way we source of food for humanity," Rosenberg says.
In the meantime, the company is aiming to get its first crops to market this fall.