By Chris Adams

In the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, Marc Oshima produces lettuce and other greens on his farm – all without stepping outside.

Using the decaying shell of a former steel mill, AeroFarms has built a vertical farm, layering row after row of greens on top of each other and using artificial light and controlled watering systems to produce its products. The building has 70,000 square feet of space and harvests up to 2 million pounds a year.

Its first seeding was in 2016.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows exploring the future of agriculture, Oshima described the technology that allows AeroFarms to produce its greens, which are then sold to retailers and restaurants.

The concept is akin to a simple greenhouse – but the execution is intricate and high-tech. AeroFarms scientists monitor more than 130,000 data points every harvest. They remotely monitor the plants and use aeroponics to mist their roots with nutrients, water, and oxygen. The system uses 95 percent less water than field farming. AeroFarms also uses less than 1 percent of the land required by conventional growing to achieve the same harvest volume.

He talked about the difference between small-scale urban farming operations – greenhouses or rooftop gardens – and the AeroFarms concept that aims to feed the masses.

But is the concept scalable? And able to produce more than niche crops?

“We’ll be the first to tell you this is not easy to do,” he said.

Even so, AeroFarms has nine farms up and running. The farming system doesn’t use soil; instead, the plants grow on a cloth made from recycled water bottles. Roots hang below the cloth to receiving the misting of nutrients. LED lights serve the role of the sun – it turns out, plants don’t need sunshine, they just need a spectrum of light.

While AeroFarms’ main product so far is leafy greens, they have grown other vegetables and fruits as well.