A Vertical Garden Grows In Downtown Newark

Source: New York Times

A former Grammer, Dempsey and Hudson steel plant in the Ironbound section of Newark is being razed by the RBH Group to make way for a giant custom-built complex for its sole tenant, AeroFarms, a company producing herbs and vegetables in an indoor, vertical environment. Instrumental in reviving parts of Newark, the RBH Group sees the venture as a way to create jobs, clear a shabby block and supply a healthy, locally grown food source.

The complex, a group of metal-block, low-slung buildings, some connected, some not, also has prominent backers. Through its Urban Investment Group, Goldman Sachs is picking up the bulk of the $39 million cost for development of the AeroFarms Ironbound complex, using equity, debt and bridge financing. Prudential Financial, whose headquarters are now in Newark, is also an investor. The project has been awarded $9 million in city and state money, in tax credits and grants.

Unlike urban vegetable gardens of the past that took advantage of empty lots or evolved in rooftop greenhouses, AeroFarms employs so-called aeroponics and stacks its produce vertically, meaning plants are arrayed not in long rows but upward. Because the farming is completely indoors, it relies on LED bulbs, with crops growing in cloth and fed with a nutrient mist.

Critics of vertical farming have complained that taste can suffer when food is cultivated without soil or sun, while proponents say vertical farms are extremely efficient and have a small environmental impact. They take up minimal space, grow round the clock and are near the markets that sell their crops, reducing the need for long truck trips. Vertical farms are also far less susceptible to the vagaries of unpredictable weather like droughts or floods.

Scheduled to open this fall inside the new Ironbound site, AeroFarms projects it will reap up to 30 harvests a year, or two million pounds of greens, including kale, arugula and romaine lettuce, Mr. Rosenberg said. At that output, AeroFarms would be among the most productive vertical farms in the country, analysts say.

But in an industry where profitability is elusive, success is hardly guaranteed. Indeed, AeroFarms is still lining up customers, which ideally will include grocery chains, schools and restaurants, company officials said. Not yet profitable, the company, which plans to expand to 70 employees, from 20, is also seeking venture capital funding.

In real estate terms, the Ironbound operation would be among the country’s largest. About two-thirds of the complex, or 46,000 square feet, will be dedicated to crops, according to the company, in rooms with lofty 30-foot ceilings.

“We can deliver anything the plant wants, when it wants it, how it wants it and where it wants it,” said David Rosenberg, chief executive of AeroFarms.

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