You may have heard of hydroponics, a method of growing plants in a liquid nutrient solution and without soil. Related but different is aquaponics, which also utilizes a liquid medium, but with nutrients from farmed fish or other aquatic animals.
Another indoor agricultural method that you’re less likely to have heard of is aeroponics. As the name suggests, this process includes growing plants in an air or mist environment and without a soil or aggregate medium. It looks something like this:
Newark, NJ-based AeroFarms, the largest vertical farm in the world, employs aeroponics and LED lights to grow indoors all year round. They’re joining us at Food Loves Tech June 10-12 (get your ticket before they’re gone!) to demo their work alongside Google, Ingredient1, Juicebot and others.
To get a better sense of their operation before Food Loves Tech, we caught up with co-founder and chief marketing officer Marc Oshima to talk about his vision for how AeroFarms will reshape the way we grow, buy and taste vegetables.
Edible Manhattan: Your background is in marketing and brand management for larger retail supermarkets and specialty food stores like Food Emporium and Citarella. Why leave an established business for a food start-up?
Marc Oshima: The passion around food and what it means for our environment and our communities cannot be avoided. There’s an increasing awareness around how our food is grown and sourced and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to be part of that. In my time with larger retailers, I saw firsthand the consciousness around our food’s literal roots developing, so when the opportunity to work with our CEO David Rosenberg and our chief science officer Dr. Ed Harwood on urban farming came along, I couldn’t pass it up.
EM: How has working with AeroFarms challenged you in ways your past experience hadn’t?
MO: We are a mission-driven organization and we were able to build our core values into our company and culture from day one. We are always thinking of all of our stakeholders, including our environment, employees, investors and community. Our lens is not only just on local farming and food production but also on fundamentally how we transform agriculture around the world. Utilizing our proprietary indoor vertical farming technology, we are uniquely addressing the global macro issues that we face with increased population and urbanization, climate change and more volatile weather, food security and worker welfare.
EM: It’s interesting you mention it being a better product, as I’ve always heard the hesitation around soilless farming has been that the products don’t have as long of a shelf life.
MO: Our focus is to inject excitement into the category and celebrate flavors, textures and varieties. Aside from aeroponics using 95 percent less water than soil farming and zero pesticides, we are able to grow locally, cutting out a very complex supply chain and enhancing shelf life versus products typically grown in California. The technology we’ve developed allows us to constantly monitor macro- and micronutrients of our plants so that we deliver precisely what a plant needs when it needs it. We have a whole approach focused on creating the right environment and inputs were our plants can thrive.
We also invested in third-party nutrition testing against leading conventional and organic brands and have high marks across the board. The quality of our product is not only recognized in these tests but also by our selling partners and customer feedback.
— AeroFarms (@AeroFarms) April 15, 2016
EM: Can you tell me a little more about the technology you’re using?
MO: Everything we utilize has been designed in-house. We like to think of ourselves as the “Apple” of farming. We built the hardware or our growing systems and then software that includes our growing algorithms for the different varieties. How they work together makes this very powerful, optimized for faster harvest cycles, predictable results, superior food safety and less environmental impact.
EM: Would you say you’re more driven by the farming side of your business or the tech development?
MO: There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two. In order to farm well, you need to be great at the technology, and in order to build the technology, you need to be great at the farming. We recognized that we wanted to manage the entire growing and harvesting and packaging process in order to manage the integrity of the product. We own and operate all of the farms and manage the entire sales process. Our competitive advantage is in how we manage all parts of the process.
AeroFarms is leveraging science for new ways to farm. We’re 75 times more productive annually than the average farm because we bypass the complexity of it. Due to this level of productivity, we’re able to offer competitively priced greens that have optimal taste, texture, nutritional and shelf life.
EM: So what does the future hold for AeroFarms?
MO: Building on our rich history going back to 2004, we have extensive growing expertise to create differentiated products that will drive overall consumption. On a broader note, we want to feed the masses, democratizing access to food that’s good for you and the environment. We’re already doing this by selling to grocery stores, restaurants and schools.
We’re also really excited about our culture. At our farms in Newark, New Jersey, we’re proud to be hiring locally for our farming operations for both skilled and unskilled roles. A big part of our ethos is thinking locally but acting globally. We want to replicate the impact we can have everywhere on a community level and build responsible farms in major cities around the world. Short term, we are building 25 farms over the next 5 years, and we know our future is even bigger.
The USDA and Secretary of Agriculture know what we’re doing and they included us to present this year at the 92nd Annual USDA Outlook Forum. It was the first time urban farming was part of the agenda, and AeroFarms was representing indoor vertical farming.
But still, at the heart of it all, we are farmers. We are growing a product that we care deeply about and believe that pride and expertise comes through when people consume it.