With a long history of pollution, as well as corruption within the state environmental department, the Garden State’s nickname hasn’t been particularly well-earned. However, New Jersey’s city of Newark will soon be home to the largest indoor farm in the world, thanks to a $30 million project that will transform an industrial ruin into an urban environmental work.
The project is being done by AeroFarms, a company that seeks to combat the global food crisis by developing innovative approaches to agricultural development. To that end, the Newark-based farm will take the space that is currently being occupied by an abandoned steel factory. Construction has already begun at the three-acre industrial site, with the first phase of operations there to begin later this year.
There are, of course, various downsides to this venture that ought to be addressed. Union workers will likely lament the tearing down of the factory, which once was a place that provided jobs for many working class residents before those types of jobs were shipped overseas. On the other hand, AeroFarms’ structure is being touted as a jobs creator in its own right.
The company will create a recruiting and job training campaign that will pull in local residents, in a city whose “unemployment rate is twice the national average.” In its beginning phase alone, it will likely create at least 78 jobs this year, said AeroFarms.
But there is another issue to address: Indoor farms do have their shortcomings, according to Grist.org. They require large amounts of electricity to LED lights and water pumps – substitutes for sunlight and rain. And they require a large investment in machinery that could be error-prone or costly to replace if damaged. Indoor farms are often seen as unable to be economically on par with outdoor agriculture, but whether this project can change that remains to be seen.
Regardless, the development is largely seen as a potential major economic boost for New Jersey and part of a continuous move toward making the state a greener place. According to Newark mayor Ras Baraka, it could also enhance that city’s reputation. He remarked, “Newark is increasingly becoming a destination city for high-tech and environmentally-friendly commerce, and this $30 million project in the East Ward will bring jobs and prosperity to our city. It will also expand the role of urban farming and locally-produced vegetables. This will provide greater access to healthy and inexpensive food choices for our residents, helping them live healthier lifestyles.”
When the project is completed, said AeroFarms, it “will have the capacity to grow up to two million pounds per year of baby leafy greens and herbs in an environmentally controlled, safe, and sanitary facility. It will provide healthy tools to the local community as well as to other markets.” The farm will purportedly offer “sustainable farming” with “75 times more productivity per square foot annually than a traditional field farm while using no pesticides and consuming over 95 percent less water.”
“Our urban farms demonstrate the enormous commitment of residents to develop homegrown solutions to repair our food system,” said Newark food policy director Elizabeth Reynoso. “Through urban agriculture we are determining what we eat, who grows it, how it is grown, and where it comes from. We increase the availability and affordability of foods that represent our city’s multi-ethnic culinary traditions, [and] we stimulate food enterprises and urban agriculture technologies developed locally.” This is “one of the best ways to engage people and connect them back to the land.”
“This is what economic development should look like,” remarked Drew Curtis, director of Community Development and Environmental Justice for Ironbound Community Corp., a nonprofit organization focusing on sustainable business development. “Good jobs, environmentally friendly uses. And uses that won’t add to the existing pollution in the neighborhood.”
Local resident and community activist Cass Zang Gonmiah said, “We can grow most of what we need to eat. Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” Newark is “the largest city in a state called ‘the Garden State.’ We’re bringing the garden back.”
Photo: Artistic rendering of what the completed urban farm facility will look like. | AeroFarms