Commercial farming has met its urban match. AeroFarms, a company in Ithaca, N.Y., provides aeroponic technology and business expertise to help grow and sell leafy greens in urban buildings on a commercial level. The aeroponic system is a type of hydroponic technology that sprays a mist directly onto the roots with the nutrients, hydration and oxygen the plants need, allowing the plants to be grown in buildings without soil or sunlight throughout the year.
Ed Harwood, CEO of AeroFarms, became familiar with aeroponics while researching cutting-edge technologies in agriculture for the Cornell University Cooperative Extension. He discovered aeroponics is the most efficient means of growing leafy greens.
“Leafy greens are the best things for us to eat in our diet. But they have a very short shelf life out of all of the veggies,” Harwood explains. “By growing them locally, the shelf life is longer and better. And without sunlight and soil, there’s little chance for contamination or disease.”
In 2002, Harwood successfully created an aeroponic prototype system to grow leafy greens. He scaled the prototype into a commercial growing system, where he grew and sold greens commercially for several years under the name GreatVeggies.
Harwood says customers’ responses to the fresher taste, the longer shelf life and the innovative mixes of the greens were extremely positive. He heard stories of people requesting the greens at restaurants with no dressing and students asking for more “green candy.”
In 2009, Harwood switched his focus to developing and selling the growing systems to farmers and entrepreneurs. Harwood renamed the company Aero Farm Systems LLC with support from 21Ventures, a technology venture capital fund, to commercialize the aeroponic technology.
AeroFarms is now a full-service provider of aeroponic growing systems that helps entrepreneurs learn to use the growing system and profit from it.
“You really have to hold your customer’s hand through this process,” Harwood says. “I view it as a partnership—it’s a strong, shared learning experience between the farmer and us. They learn from my successes, and I learn from theirs.”
AeroFarms’ first paying customer was a group of Wall Street investors who wanted to start an urban farm as part of an effort to revitalize Newark, N.J. AeroFarms installed the aeroponic farm system at St. Phillips Academy, a school that provides private education for disadvantaged youth. The growing system allows the kids to grow leafy-green vegetables, which are used in the school kitchen to prepare healthy and nutritious organic meals for the kids.
The AeroFarms growing system uses a cloth conveyor instead of soil as the growing medium. Because one piece of cloth can last up to five years, the cloth is cost-effective and environmentally friendly. Nutrients are applied directly to the plants’ roots, which requires less water compared to soil-based methods. LED lighting provides the plants with the most ideal amount and variety of lighting.
AeroFarms growing system is designed for old or vacant warehouse-type buildings, and therefore doesn’t waste land space. The AeroFarms growing system is modular and vertically stackable, which can turn 10,000 square feet of facility floor space into nearly 30,000 square feet of growing space.
Harwood hopes this technology will eventually become mainstream.
“We need to think about the next generation in terms of better health and better food,” he says. “I want more people participating in growing good food. I want this technology to be in reach of people to set up businesses and provide better foods for people.”
Visit the AeroFarms website to learn how to set up your own commercial growing system.