With spring just around the corner, efforts to grow green business in New Jersey’s largest city were bolstered by the announcement this week of a $30 million public-private commitment to create the world’s largest indoor aeroponic garden in Newark’s Ironbound, a community in serious need of investment, good jobs, and fresh produce.
Essentially, aeroponics is a plant-cultivation technique that doesn’t require soil or sun: Roots are exposed to the air and nutrition delivered via a fine mist.
Newark redeveloper RBH Group announced Monday a partnership with the high-tech farming company AeroFarms to build a 69,000 square foot enclosed vertical garden and global headquarters at a former steel factory on Rome Street. Founder and CEO Ron Beit said in a press release the project offers important benefits to an underserved community, including up to 78 local jobs and better access to healthy produce. Construction has started and the facility is scheduled to open later this year, he said.
“This is what economic development should look like,” said Drew Curtis, Director of Community Development and Environmental Justice for Ironbound Community Corp., an established non-profit that partnered with RBH to remediate and redevelop the surrounding site to attract sustainable businesses that will offer high-quality employment. “Good jobs, environmentally friendly uses — and uses that won’t add to the existing” pollution in the neighborhood.
Ironbound Community Corp. also signed an agreement with AeroFarms to handle job recruitment, certification, and training for the Rome Street facility, Curtis said. Two local workers are already on the job at AeroFarms’ temporary headquarters on Market Street he added.
“Newark is increasingly becoming a destination City for high-tech and environmentally friendly commerce,” said Mayor Ras J. Baraka in a statement. The investment will expand the urban-farming effort that has already taken root, he said, and it fits with the city’s new economic development mission to capitalize on its assets — location, space, available workforce — with projects that enhance the community without further harming its environment.
The project “will have a major impact on our City’s economic and physical health, and our efforts to transform Newark into a City we can all believe in,” the Mayor said.
AeroFarms works to create “local farming at a commercial scale” with a soilless, sunless indoor process to grow clean, fresh, pesticide-free produce — a process that is ideal for warehouse space and urban redevelopment, according to the company website. The Rome Street facility will involve seeds sown into a fabric layer, stretched over trays that stack vertically, reaching dozens of feet into the air. The plants are nourished by a nutrient-rich “aeroponic mist.”
The company says aeroponic farming saves enormous amounts of space, time, water, and other resources and it doesn’t generate harmful waste products. Eventually, the Rome Street farm could produce and package up to 2 million pounds a year of kale, arugula, spinach, and other leafy veggies. Curtis said AeroFarms will also work with ICC to distribute produce through the organization’s community gardens and farmers market to ensure it reaches local residents. The greens will also be sold in commercial grocery stores.
David Rosenberg, AeroFarms CEO, said in a press release that this project allows the company to bring its nutritious product and its global operations “close to where the consumer is,” while helping the Ironbound community. He said the investment builds on a relationship founded four years ago, when AeroFarms partnered with three former Wall Street executives to create a pilot project at what is now Philips Academy Charter School. That indoor farm continues to feed students. AeroFarms opened a larger test site and office space on Market Street last year.
Funding for the Rome Street project came from Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group and Prudential Financial Inc. The City of Newark arranged some financing and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority provided nearly $9 million in incentives, stretched over 10 years. The EDA assistance includes a $2.2 million grant under the Economic Redevelopment and Growth program and $6.5 million in Grow New Jersey tax credits. RBH Group owns the three-acre site, which borders other industrial properties on Rome and Christie streets, near Route 1/9, and is adjacent to the Ironbound Recreation Center.
The AeroFarm project will also serve as an anchor tenant in RBH’s “Makers Village,” an effort to cultivate a sustainable community of industrial and creative small businesses, similar to the Brooklyn Navy Yard initiative. RBH also leads the Teachers Village redevelopment project, a mix of charter schools, housing and retail on Halsey Street and has acquired dozens of parcels downtown in hopes of promoting large-scale projects in Newark’s core.
AeroFarms was founded a decade ago by a former Cornell University professor in Ithaca, NY, in a quest to use technology to address the global food crisis. The company — praised by agriculture and high-tech publications for its innovative approach — is now working on large-scale projects in several other major cities here and abroad.