ROI-NJ takes a closer look at AeroFarms

Read ROI-NJ’s profile of AeroFarms

Competitive landscape

It only has been within the last five years, David Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of AeroFarms in Newark, said, that he has seen the vertical farming space grow more competitive.

“I think a lot of people are drawn to the romantic notion of benefiting the world and society without truly appreciating the complexities of what it takes to succeed,” he said.

That would include business decisions such as investing ahead in growing technologies and learning how to scale effectively.

“I believe that nearly 90 percent of the current players creeping into the space may go out of business within the next few years,” Rosenberg said. “But just because a lot of people will fail does not mean that the industry will.”

Doing more with less

AeroFarms uses 40 percent less water than hydroponic systems, 95 percent less water than field-farmed food and 40 percent less plastic in its packaging.

By limiting sales to a 30-mile radius from farms, AeroFarms also reduces vehicle emissions while providing retailers and the food service industry with locally-grown, consistently priced product year-round.

And the company can yield 390 times more product per square foot annually than conventional farms by growing twice as fast and using less than once percent of the land typically required.

Food safety

The latest outbreak of E. coli started with romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona.

Given that 95 percent of the nation’s salad greens are grown in either that region or Salinas, California, it is no wonder that dozens of people in New Jersey grew sick.

“People underappreciate and are therefore not putting the thoughtfulness needed into the complexities around food safety,” David Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of AeroFarms in Newark, said. “That could then influence the entire supply chain from retailers to restaurants.”

As the world’s largest indoor vertical farming company, AeroFarms has set a new standard for traceability and transparency by managing its leafy greens from seed to packaging.

“We’ve been doing what we can to get on the microphone and tell people not to cut corners, to understand that the tradeoff you make when you don’t hire a food safety professional means designing food in unsafe ways,” Rosenberg said.

Growing employment

Unlike traditional farms, AeroFarms in Newark has attracted talent from top laboratories and even Wall Street to become part of a company that is making a difference by feeding and saving the world.

“In part because of the excitement for our mission, we’ve been a magnet for attracting the best and the brightest,” David Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO, said. “We hire people who are problem-solvers, not specifically people to solve a problem.

“We understand the problems they are solving tomorrow are different than the ones they are solving today.”

The company now employs 120 and is still hiring everyone from production line workers and mechanical engineers to a general counsel and senior plant scientists.

Prospective employees also usually are willing to meet AeroFarms where they are.

“Young people, especially, realize now that we need to change and want to work for a positively impactful company,” Rosenberg said. “But we also have some great people in the later stages of their career who have realized that they now want to go out and make a difference in the world. Many are even willing to take meaningful salary decreases to become a part of our journey.”

What AeroFarms could use more of, Rosenberg added, is a more meaningful connection with the local workforce in Newark.

“We have hired a number of past offenders, as we strongly believe that if one pays their debt to society, society should help to bring people back into the workforce to keep people engaged in a positive way,” Rosenberg said. “We also believe that partnerships we have with local economic development groups, such as the Ironbound Community Corp., play an important part in this equation.

“These programs are where we think public and private partnerships will be able to make the biggest impacts.”