If you’ve ever thought that New Jersey’s Garden State nickname is a misnomer and that the state is just a wasteland of spiraling off-ramps, tanning salon-anchored strip malls and pollution-belching industrial parks, you’re wrong. Although the origins of the mostly-accurate nickname are a bit hazy (it's mostly credited to a prideful 19th century farm-owning politician), New Jersey is an agricultural powerhouse that, much to the surprise of those driving along the Turnpike from exits 10 through 18W, is downright bucolic in spots.

With over 715,000 acres of dedicated farmland and over 9,000 farms scattered throughout the compact and densely populated state, New Jersey is a leader in the production of cranberries, blueberries, bell peppers and, of course, those famously delicious Jersey tomatoes. Agri-tourism is booming and, in 1984, it became the first state in the nation to boast a state-sponsored agricultural marketing program in the form of Jersey Fresh.

Newark, however, is a different story.

Despite a handful of successful urban farming efforts initiated under former mayor/current senator Cory Booker and the presence of a few vacant-lots-turned veggie patches and inner-city farmers markets, Brick City is still largely starved of green. Huge swaths of the city remain food deserts, where all of that great produce grown elsewhere in the state is difficult to access.

But like Newark as a whole — a city believed not so long ago to be stuck in an irreversible state of decay — the healthy food/urban agriculture situation is gradually improving. And with a recent announcement of a $30 million adaptive reuse project that will transform an old 3-acre industrial site into the largest indoor vertical farm in the world, Newark may soon become the unlikely green heart of the Garden State.

Already under construction at an old, 69,000-square-foot steel mill in the East Ward neighborhood of Ironbound, the state-of-the-art farming facility was borne from a joint partnership between Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, Prudential, the city of Newark, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and Newark-based, redevelopment-focused real estate firm, RBH Group. Also involved is AeroFarms, an urban farming start-up founded a little over 10 years ago in Ithaca, New York, that will be outfitting the farm with vertical farming technology. AeroFarms will also establish its new worldwide corporate headquarters at the site.

When up and running, the facility is expected to produce up to 2 million pounds of super-fresh, pesticide-free baby leafy greens and herbs annually. As reported by NJ.com, the project will also produce locally sourced jobs from the high-unemployment neighborhood — about 78 of them by the end of this year.

The vertical farm project site in Newark as seen from above.

The project site at 212 Rome Street in Newark's Ironbound neighborhood. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

And this isn’t the first time that AeroFarms venture in Newark. Back in 2010, the company worked with local urban farm EcoVeggies to install an aeroponic growing structure at St. Phillips Academy, a charter school that also sports a rooftop veggie garden.

So what exactly, you may ask, is aeroponics?

Often associated with cultivating greenery in outer space, aeroponics is exactly what it sounds like: air-based plant growing that requires no soil, no sunlight (LEDs are used instead) and dramatically less water — roughly 95 percent — than conventional growing methods. What little water is needed is delivered as a nutrient-packed mist to the plants' roots which are left dangling and exposed with no growing medium. Sort of a spin-off of hydroponic plant cultivation, aeroponic farming is less resource-intensive and, in turn, more cost-effective than other methods. According to AeroFarms, its systems allow for 75 percent greater productivity per square foot annually than field farming. And since aeroponics takes places indoors in a climate-controlled environment, crops can be grown on a year-round basis.

aeroponic growing system

AeroFarms' patented soil-free growing system. (Image: AeroFarms)

More nuts and bolts on the technology from AeroFarms:

Aeroponics is a cutting-edge type of hydroponic technology that grows plants in a mist without soil or sun, in any location. The aeroponic mist most efficiently provides roots with the nutrients, hydration and oxygen needed. AeroFarms has designed its aeroponic system to eliminate nozzle clogging and reduce water consumption through nutrient re-circulation. Although often categorized as an outgrowth of more conventional hydroponics, aeroponics uses less water and is more efficient than hydroponics. Compared to soil-based and traditional hydroponic methods, aeroponics consumes significantly less water due the system’s closed loop of nutrient application directly to the roots.
AeroFarms is also pioneering the use of LED (light emitting diode) lighting for growing and vertical farming systems, providing the plants with the most ideal amount and variety of lighting for optimal harvest. The controlled environment of the aeroponic farming system allows for a level of precise nurturing unavailable even to conventional or organic growing outdoors. In addition, AeroFarms has developed a proprietary, reusable cloth medium. The system employs cloth as a conveyor for plants from the seeding stage to harvesting. Cloth has a number of benefits such as durability and reusability, increased cleanliness and sanitation, and the efficient harvest of a dry and clean product.

AeroFarms’ patented growing technology was developed by former Cornell University professor and aeroponics pioneer, Ed Harwood, who serves as the chief technology officer of the company. “All of these things people are nostalgic for, I’m not,” Harwood explained to Bloomberg last fall. “We got into this because we didn’t want to work as hard as regular farmers do."

The first phase of the project is due to open later this year. While it’s unclear at this point exactly how the leafy greens produced at the innovative new farm will be distributed throughout northern New Jersey and the New York City metro area, it's safe to say that a decent amount will end up in the salad bowls of Newark residents.

Via [NJ.com], [Gizmodo]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.