The vertical farm


Growing crops in the city, without soil or natural light.


No. 212 Rome Street, in Newark, New Jersey, used to be the address of Grammer, Dempsey & Hudson, a steel-supply company. It was like a lumberyard for steel, which it bought in bulk from distant mills and distributed in smaller amounts, mostly to customers within a hundred-mile radius of Newark. It sold off its assets in 2008 and later shut down. In 2015, a new indoor-agriculture company called AeroFarms leased the property. It had the rusting corrugated-steel exterior torn down and a new building erected on the old frame. Then it filled nearly seventy thousand square feet of floor space with what is called a vertical farm. The building’s ceiling allowed for grow tables to be stacked twelve layers tall, to a height of thirty-six feet, in rows eighty feet long. The vertical farm grows kale, bok choi, watercress, arugula, red-leaf lettuce, mizuna, and other baby salad greens.

Grammer, Dempsey & Hudson was founded in 1929. Its workers were members of the Teamsters Union, whose stance could be aggressive. Once, somebody fired shots into the company’s office, but didn’t hit anyone. Despite the union, the company and its employees got along amicably, and many of them worked there all their lives. Men moved steel plate and I-beams with cranes that ran on tracks in the floor. Trucks pulled up to the loading bays and loaded or unloaded, coming and going through the streets of Newark, past the scrap-metal yards and chemical plants and breweries. In an average year, Grammer, Dempsey & Hudson shipped about twenty thousand tons of steel. When the vertical farm is in full operation, as it expects to be soon, it hopes to ship, annually, more than a thousand tons of greens.

Ingrid Williams, AeroFarms’ director of human resources, lives in Orange but knows Newark well. She has degrees in labor studies and sociology from Rutgers, and she visited many of the city’s public-housing apartment buildings in her previous job as a social-services coördinator. She is a slim, widely smiling woman with shoulder-length dreads who dresses in Michelle Obama blues, blacks, and whites. For a while, she had her own show, “The Wow Mom Show,” on local-access TV. Through it she met many people, including a woman who is a financial expert and helps local residents with their budgets. The two became friends, and last year when this woman was giving a speech at a Newark nonprofit Williams showed up to support her.

One of the other speakers that day was David Rosenberg, the C.E.O. and co-founder of AeroFarms. “A light went on in my head when I heard AeroFarms,” Williams told me. “There’s an AeroFarms mini-farm growing salad greens in the cafeteria of my daughter’s school, Philip’s Academy Charter School, on Central Avenue. I volunteer there all the time as part of parents’ stewardship, and I know the kids love growing their own lettuce for the salad bar.” After the speeches, she stayed to congratulate her friend and also introduced herself to Rosenberg. He asked her if she was looking for a job. She started as H.R. director at AeroFarms nine days later.

The mini-farm in the cafeteria at Philip’s Academy is a significant piece of technology. In fact, it is a key to the story, and it figures in the larger picture of vertical farming worldwide and of indoor agriculture in general. If the current movement to grow more food locally, in urban settings, and by high-tech indoor methods follows the path that some predict for it, the mini-farm in the school cafeteria may one day have its own historical plaque.

The mini-farm’s inventor, Ed Harwood, of Ithaca, New York, sold it to the school in 2010. Harwood is a sixty-six-year-old man of medium stature who speaks with the kind of rural accent that sometimes drops the last letters of words. He has been an associate professor at Cornell’s famous school of agriculture, and he began his career as an inventor by coming up with revolutionary improvements in the computer management of dairy cows, an animal he loves. His joyous enthusiasm for what he does has an almost messianic quality.

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Picture from Pexels.