AmericanFarm.com

Harwood discusses AeroFarms’ operation

By RICHARD SKELLY
AFP Correspondent

PRINCETON (Jan. 1, 2016) — Ed Harwood, chief technology officer for AeroFarms, an indoor leafy green and herb farm in Newark, spoke to farmers and farm managers at the recent annual meeting of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
Using state-of-the-art LED lighting and patented cloth to grow leafy greens, the world’s largest vertical farm recently expanded into a bigger space at 85 Market St. in downtown Newark.
Harwood and his team at AeroFarms have grown nearly three dozen different kinds of kale, lettuce and herbs at the facility to meet growing consumer demand, in restaurants and on kitchen tables, for healthy, fresh salad greens.
Company executives have been experimenting with this new all-indoor, filtered air technology since 2004 and tweaking their operations he said.
They began with a facility in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
“We plant our plants on a cloth, and the roots go down through the cloth. The chamber that is below the cloth captures the water and recycles it,” Harwood said.
“The farm is now turning out leafy greens that are available for sale at the new Shop-Rite in downtown Newark, less than a mile away.”
In a former steel mill, executives at AeroFarms have set up seven layers of five foot by 80 foot planting beds, each bed of plants getting its “sunlight” from sophisticated LED lighting that mirrors the spectrum of the sun without the excess heat.
The aero-ponic system uses a patented cloth growth medium for the seeds, a chamber below the cloth captures excess water and recycles it and the system is completely closed.
The actual growing beds are small compared to ones company executives are currently working on for a much larger farm. 
Harwood said his background was mostly in dairy farming, but when he was in college he did spend a season picking grapes and noted that it was tough work compared to what employees at AeroFarms face on a daily basis in a clean, controlled indoor growing facility.
He compared it with conventional farming with good insights.
“Outdoor light doesn’t come in the amount we want it, sometimes it doesn’t come when we want it, and that’s why I really question that it’s free,” he said. “The sun is an expensive commodity because of all the things I have to do with it, yet if I switch over to LED light, it’s the exact spectrum I need and I can manage things much more efficiently.”
“Some added benefits: it stops bugs, bugs need light in order to get around and if you leave that light on all the time, they get confused, and they don’t reproduce well,” he said.
“There’s also no radiant heat, LED’s are much easier to manage and it doesn’t burn the plants. When you grow outdoors the soil isn’t always the right pH, the correct PH is so important to how vegetables taste,” Harwood argued.
“Fertilizer, outside, it’s not easily controlled at all and the roots have to go out and find the nutrients, and if I do this inside with cloth I can control the pH within a very narrow band,” Harwood said, “and our produce is no wash, our stuff is ready to eat, this is aero-ponics, not hydroponics.”
Indoors, temperatures and CO2 levels can be controlled much more closely, as can relative humidity.
“It’s a clean environment because we filter out all of the dust, the CO2 is a bit more expensive for us, but the product is clean, pristine, consistent and it’s ready to eat,” he said. “We harvest 22 to 30 different crops a year.”
What started out in 2004 as a simple indoor warehouse styled experimental growing facilities in the Finger Lakes region of New York State has moved to Newark, now the site of the world’s largest indoor vertical farm.
“We are there and the biggest reason we are there is the cost of LED’s has gone down and their efficiency has gone up.”
As a result, AeroFarms produces leafy greens that are cost competitive with field grown greens, he said.
After delivering his well-planned talk and PowerPoint presentation, Harwood took questions from the audience.
Asked about business plans for AeroFarms, Harwood said it’s those crops that take 16 to 18 days to grow to market size that will be the sweet spot for AeroFarms, but as LED lighting and other growth medium technologies improve, there will be more such indoor grown crops.
“Our plan is to own the farms and currently we have three more projects going in New Jersey and projects in other parts of the U.S. that are in various stages of development,” he said.
“We employ about 60 people now and about 10 to 15 of those people are devoted to the new facilities,” Harwood said.
“At some point I hope to have us go public at which point other people could invest in the technology,” he said, adding, “right now we’re in the business of making new farms.”
Harwood said he and others at AeroFarms have only explored and grown a relatively small number of the roughly 200 different varieties of leafy greens, “so I think there’s a huge opportunity here.”