A cavernous warehouse in Newark, New Jersey is not where you’d expect to find a thriving vegetable farm. Stacks and stacks of light boxes are connected to digital sensors. There’s no soil, no honeybees, no whiff of compost.
But this is the typical scene inside AeroFarms’ Newark facility, touted to be the world’s largest indoor vertical farm—at least until the company’s $42 million outpost in Virginia is completed. The 16-year-old agtech startup has taken aeroponics to an industrial scale, growing some 800 varieties of leafy greens, tubers, root crops, vine crops, and berries all without soil, sunshine, or pesticides. The only thing they can’t produce is fruit grown on trees, explains AeroFarms co-founder Marc Oshima, who gave Quartz a tour of the facility.
You may have heard of aeroponics as the method used by NASA to grow vegetables in outer space. Instead of sprouting into the dirt, plant roots are exposed in the air and grow upward. Vegetation is cultivated with mists of water and controlled amounts of light and air. An aeroponic farm is 300% more efficient than a traditional farm in terms of crop yield, though critics decry the significant amounts of electricity used to power the computers, lights, high-pressure valves, and sprinklers around the clock.
Restaurateurs like Momofuku’s David Chang, Red Rooster’s Marcus Samuelsson, and Facebook’s executive chef Anthony Moraes rave about the “flavor density” of AeroFarms-grown produce. Because environmental factors can be tweaked during the growing process, chefs can request sweeter tasting kale or an extra peppery arugula to suit a recipe.
Arugula (or rocket), by the way, is notoriously challenging to grow, says Oshima—unusually cold and wet weather in Arizona this year has resulted in the “great arugula shortage of 2020.” Oshima explains that they’ve been racing to meet the demand, since AeroFarms’ process doesn’t rely on natural weather conditions and can produce winter greens in half the time of traditional farming. “Our orders are through the roof,” he says.
Antony McNeil, Singapore Airlines’ global food and beverage director, is a recent convert. “It’s strange when you first hear how it’s described—lettuce on racks, LED lights… I wasn’t sure about that,” he says. A seasoned Australian chef who’s previously managed kitchens at the Ritz Carlton, Hilton, and Emirates airline, McNeil says the ability to serve passengers the tastiest and freshest produce sold him on AeroFarms.
The fresh factor is particularly compelling. Most commercial airlines use traditionally grown salad greens that have been harvested three to five weeks before they appear on an in-flight meal tray. Singapore Airlines is the first major carrier to serve produce harvested just hours before a flight. JetBlue has a similar “farm-to-air” program, but it uses traditional farming on rooftop gardens in New York’s John F. Kennedy airport.
“We now have the best opportunity to serve the freshest produce, and it doesn’t have to fly 2,000 miles,” McNeil explains.
But do classically trained chefs have qualms about lab-grown vegetables, like many do when it comes to genetically modified meat products? After all, what a strange power to calibrate the color, flavor, and texture of produce based on the whims of a cook. McNeil seems unconcerned, however. “I have no issues with it because it’s unadulterated,” he explains. “It’s just fresh, beautiful produce.”
AeroFarms customizes orders by altering the environmental growing conditions; increasing the wind speed in the farm yields a firmer kale, for instance. “This is stretching our imagination,” says McNeil, who dreams of experimenting with discarded stalks of AeroFarms-grown produce to flavor his soups.
Beyond the quality factor, McNeil says having data that traces where and how vegetables are grown is a time-saver—especially for airlines, where food safety is paramount. As he notes, food served on planes has to pass 10 to 12 critical control points in transit from harvest to the time it’s served.
Singapore Airlines is currently serving the AeroFarms-grown produce on flights originating from Newark and JFK airports. McNeil says the plan is to expand the company’s network of sustainable growers to service more routes around the world.