As a concept, vertical farming has been around for decades, and thinkers like Columbia professor Dickson Despommier are credited with advancing the concept. Until recently, however, it was never economically viable.
Even now, the concept has major drawbacks. It's capital-intensive to start a vertical farm, energy costs can run very high, and space constraints limit what can be grown. Due to the lack of soil, the produce also doesn't get an organic label—even though it costs consumers about as much as organic products do.
"The challenge has been to make it commercially profitable," said Colangelo. "We looked at a number of different methods and through trial and error we figured out how not to build a farm."
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Every project, he said, becomes more efficient as data is collected and the process improves. Colangelo said his team is beginning to develop better seeds through genetic sequencing.
And that's why vertical farming is finally taking off now: New technology is driving down costs, just as consumers are increasingly seeking out locally sourced, all-natural foods.
Lighting is one of the biggest expenditures. AeroFarms' Rosenberg said the LED lights it has specifically designed for its farm comprise 50 percent of capital expenditure.
Farmers have discovered that a mix of red and blue LED diodes works best, since the colors optimize photosynthesis and require less energy than standard yellow light.
Green Sense collaborates with Philips Lighting, which has been developing vertical farming light prototypes for the past seven years through its City Farming division.
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"In addition to being able to be very targeted, very precisely steer the growth of the plant, it's also very efficient for lighting, so the energy use is low," says Gus van der Feltz, Philips' global director of city farming. He added that the business is growing "exponentially" for the lighting giant.
Vertical farms are implementing technology in other ways, as well. Some like AeroFarms will use conveyor belts to harvest plants, and machines to package them, cutting down on labor costs.
Big data and the software to collect it is also crucial. AeroFarms said it gathers 10,000 data points per harvest cycle, information that enables the company to grow more efficiently as well as for visual and culinary appeal.
"This is really our playpen," said Rosenberg, plucking a piece of ruby streak, a mustard green, from a tray. "We're testing varieties, we're testing to optimize yield, to optimize nutritional density, texture and taste."
And it does taste good—spicy and almost overwhelmingly flavorful. Not bad for a former dance club in the middle of Newark.