The most populous city in the entirety of New Jersey, Newark fits quite a few different descriptions depending on who you ask. Some might call Newark a shipping hub while others might call it a hotbed for crime. Some members of Egg Harbor Township would go so far as to say that the city of Newark is "trying," but that there is still a long way to go.
Despite the reputation that Newark has enjoyed (rather, not enjoyed) over the past several decades, nobody in Essex County could have foreseen it becoming home to one of the largest indoor farming meccas on the planet, thanks to their partnership with AeroFarms.
AeroFarms is a vertical farming company based out of Newark that intends to develop, enhance, and provide access to the indoor vertical farming that is necessary for locally grown, pesticide-free produce throughout the calendar year. Driven by LED technology and an aeroponics feeding system, AeroFarms boasts a potential yield of up to 390 times more than an equivalent square foot of traditionally planted produce.
Chosen for convenient access to a large customer base, as well as unbelievably low rent, Newark became more than just the Brick City: it has now turned into ground zero for a potential gardening revolution.
The Origins of Vertical Farming
While AeroFarms may be at the forefront of innovation in today's climate, they were far from the first to dip their toes into vertical farming. Vertical farming can be traced back to roughly two decades to a professor at Columbia University named Dickson Despommier. The first to ever propose vertical farming, Despommier was ridiculed far and wide, even by some unexpected voices. Stephen Colbert said in an interview back in 2008, "This seems like the ramblings of a syphilitic brain." Sorry Steve, looks like you missed the garden with this one!
By 2019 alone, vertical gardening in the United States would expand to encompass more than 2,000 locations, not to mention the masses of private aeroponics growers not counted in these studies.
Why Is Vertical Farming Such a Big Deal?
Like many other tech innovators, AeroFarms has been on a collision course with supply chain disruption for a long time. Founded in 2004, AeroFarms has been focusing on reducing water use of field-farmed food through aeroponics. Dropping water use by 95% while improving yield production by up to 390x per sq/ft is an amazing accomplishment and, potentially, the first step of many to come.
Categoric Advantages of Vertical Farming
When properly installed, operated, and executed, vertical farming has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of supply chains while unshackling free farming from the mysterious nature of environmental impacts. According to the Colbeck Capital Management Medium blog, 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to food production.
Global population estimates suggest more than 2.5 billion additional people will be included in the population by 2050, a stark reminder and a damning highlight of the potential dangers of greenhouse gas emissions for food production in the future. Despommier wrote in The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, "We have become locked into an ancient, outdated system of food production."
The Green Revolution 2.0
Following along the lines of Despommier's work, we can see that today's aeroponics revolution is due in large part to yesteryear's Green Revolution, but not in the way that you may think. The Green Revolution was fueled in large part by mechanized farming, chemical fertilizers, and a severe lack of oversight concerning both subjects. Agrochemicals would get introduced to the environment and continues to cause long-term pollution and health impacts. Companies like Bayer are still enduring class-action lawsuits due to its use of herbicides.
Vertical farming endeavors to become the true green revolution as it takes a side-road around any agrochemicals. Indoor plants produced by AeroFarms and other similar vertical farming models are protected by natural pesticides such as ladybugs and wasps. Avoiding environmental run-off while meticulously controlling the nutrient uptake of vertical farms also leads to more control over potential controversy, avoiding GMOs, glyphosates, and other trace levels of poisons we have become used to.
A Dire Emergency For Vertical Farming
Despite many of the potential perks available to us through vertical farming, very real concerns remain. Colbeck Capital wrote on its Limited Liabilities blog of the energy-guzzling nature that aeroponics gardening can present. With aeroponics and indoor gardening, LED grow lights need to run for upward of 16 hours per day, with additional heating and pump requirements as well. Expert estimates claim that vertical farms can consume up to 30% more energy than traditional outdoor gardens.
Despite the energy consumption intrinsic to vertical farming, there are some areas where optimism continues to thrive. Vertical farming for certain crops, such as wheat, could cost upward of $23 worth of electricity for a single loaf. This isn't going to be sustainable for wheat yet, but herbs, greens, and microgreens all present the opposite end of the spectrum.
Bruce Bugbee is a Professor at the Utah State University where he teaches in the Plants, Soils, and Climate department. Bugbee is one of the more hesitant voices when it comes to supporting vertical farming in the green sector. Bugbee believes that to properly power a vertical farm, you would need a "nuclear reactor right next to it to power it!"
Far from the only voice speaking out against vertical farming, researchers at Cornell University would echo Bugbee's words. Right now, the single most devastating fact surrounding vertical farming is its inability to efficiently produce carbs, something vital if we want to ever truly address the food supply.
Bugbee goes on to say, "The idea of growing our staple crops in vertical farms is ridiculous."
Increased Demand Due to Climate Change
Right now, LED lighting is the focus of future green tech investors. LED lighting lives and operates under something known as Haitz's Law. Named after Roland Haitz in 2000, Haitz's Law proposes that "every 10 years, LED lights will grow in power by a factor of 20 while the cost of their performance will decrease by a factor of 10."
Even though Haitz's law sounded optimistic, it actually lowballed the level of advances. In fact, since 2013, LED efficiency has increased over 50%. Haitz commented on these recent advancements in 2015 by saying, "Solid-state lighting is where the internet was in the 1980s."
As climate change continues to be a source of contention around the world, more and more focus will be placed upon alternative growing methods like vertical farming. A commercial nursery manager from Modesto, John Duarte, stated, "Everyone is thinking about the impacts of warm winters with not enough water."