'World's largest indoor farm' to rise in an unlikely spot in South Jersey

Camden is not what people think of when they read “Garden State” on New Jersey license plates.

But that could change this year, when a 78,000-square-foot, warehouse-style building starts to rise in a weed-strewn field in the 1500 block of Broadway.

By 2018, if all goes according to plan, it will be home to what its owners say will be “the world’s largest indoor farm” -- a marvel of modern technology pointing to new ways the world can grow food.

The Camden site will be Farm No. 10 of AeroFarms LLC, which last year began growing abundant quantities of leafy greens such as kale, red-leaf lettuce, arugula, and bok choy in a converted steel warehouse in Newark’s inner city.

“This is Farm No. 9,” AeroFarms’ cofounder and CEO, David Rosenberg, said last week as he donned a hairnet and stepped onto a tray of solution that cleaned the soles of his neon-blue running shoes. Hairnets, beard nets, shoe cleaning -- even removal of wrist watches to guard against the chance of a broken crystal’s landing in the watercress -- are mandatory for all who enter the growing room here at 212 Rome St.

Tall and serious, his skull close-shaved, Rosenberg, 44, pulled open a steel door to a cavernous room with the look of science fiction. Here, 12 layers of eerie, misty, white light rose 36 feet to the ceiling, illuminating 80-foot-long trays, each wearing blankets of light-green leaves.

“This is version 3.6,” he said, indicating an array of technologies developed by AeroFarms that not only allow it to germinate seeds in 12 to 48 hours “what would normally take eight to 10 days,” but then grow them to maturity “aeroponically” on beds of proprietary synthetic cloth.

Illuminated by specially calibrated LED grow lights of AeroFarms’ devising, the seedlings’ and plants’ airborne roots are sprayed periodically with a mist of purified water and mineral nutrients ordinarily found in soil, and each grow tray is monitored electronically for health and vitality.

“We don’t talk to the plants,” Rosenberg joked, “but they do talk to us.”

What makes AeroFarms’ aggregated technologies so different from traditional hydroponics and conventional agriculture, said Rosenberg, is that “we can grow on one acre what would normally take 130 acres on a field farm. And we use 75 percent less water” than hydroponics, which keeps roots soaking in water.

At 70,000 square feet, this mostly corrugated-steel building is already the world’s largest indoor “vertical farm,” according to Rosenberg. That title will very likely devolve next year to the larger Camden building, he said, although it still awaits architectural design and local zoning approvals.

The future Farm No. 10 has already passed one important hurdle, however.

As Rosenberg was winding up his tour shortly before noon Thursday, he pulled out his smartphone, checked his email, and gave a quick pump of his fist.

“We won,” he called out, and with a broad smile explained to the handful of employees standing close by that the New Jersey Economic Development Authority had minutes earlier awarded AeroFarms a grant of $11.14 million in tax incentives over 10 years to build the Camden farm.

Known as Grow New Jersey Assistance Program Grants, the incentives encourage businesses to locate or relocate in economically stressed municipalities, and make capital improvements to the properties they occupy.

On Wednesday the firm also won a “vision” award at the Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, where former President Barack Obama had spoken on Tuesday.

En route to AeroFarms’ offices in a former paintball arena a few blocks away, Rosenberg said he was gratified by the Milan award because it recognizes “the coolest vision of how the world should work.”

On entering the brick building on Ferry Street, whose dark interior walls still bear large, graffiti-like images of squirting guns, he made his way to a rectangular, cafeteria-style table where a gray-haired man sat hunched over a laptop. This was 67-year-old Ed Harwood, cofounder of AeroFarms, whom Rosenberg introduced as “our chief scientific officer.”

Affable, with a ready smile, Harwood was an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Agriculture when he developed a computerized ankle bracelet for cows that told farmers when they were ready to breed.

Around the turn of the millennium, he grew interested in raising crops without soil, sunlight, or large volumes of water, and in 2003 developed a nozzle that could spray nutrients onto plant roots without clogging -- a breakthrough. After much experimentation he then developed a porous cloth made from recycled soda bottles that allows the roots of seedling roots to penetrate and grow down, where nozzles mist them.

Then there was work to be done on the lighting, Harwood explained, “the intensity, the spectrum, and how much energy was needed for what kind of yield.”

His first grow operation -- Farm No. 1 -- was a converted kayak shop in Ithaca, N.Y. It was touch-and-go until 2011, when he met Rosenberg, who brought in investors such as Goldman Sachs and Prudential Insurance. Together with Rosenberg’s former business partner Marc Oshima as marketing officer, they created Dream Holdings, the parent company to AeroFarms, and started operations in Newark in a former dance club in 2012.

Their produce, which is packaged on-site in clear, recyclable clamshell packages, sells in North Jersey and Manhattan under the trade name “Dream Greens.” The Camden operation will supply South Jersey and the Philadelphia region, Rosenberg said, and about 75 percent of its workforce of about 100 would likely be drawn from Camden and surrounding towns. In Newark, he said, the company pays unskilled labor about 40 percent above minimum wage and offers “full benefits.”

“We probably would not have made the move to Camden -- at least not now -- without the [Grow New Jersey] tax grant,” he said.

To date, the authority has controversially awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits to businesses already located in South Jersey, including Subaru and Holtec, to relocate to Camden as part of a concerted effort to revitalize the city. Critics complain that the program results in a significant loss of tax revenues while providing relatively few jobs to the city’s residents.

But Rosenberg praised the grant program as the kind of “public-private partnership” by which government can encourage “innovative companies” like his to achieve such worthy goals as job creation, urban renewal, or reducing water pollution. A similar grant to build in Newark had also been a major factor, he said, in winning the private investments needed to grow launch AeroFarms on a large scale.

“Without it,” he said, “We couldn’t be in this state.”

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