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Jun 292010

Arugula growing in the AeroFarms system

By Brett Kessler
Green Right Now

For many people, it’s difficult to believe that aeroponics — a type of soil-less farming featured in old episodes of Star Trek — is not science fiction. The reality is that this technology is already changing the agricultural landscape of the world, and companies such as AeroFarms, founded in 2004 by New York scientist Ed Harwood, are working to accelerate that change.

Because it requires no soil, aeroponics is ideal for urban environments and other places unsuited for conventional agriculture.  As Dr. Harwood sees it, delicate plants, suspended in mid air, are one vital face of urban farming.

The benefits of this type of farming — for plants, for you, for the environment — can be huge. Gone are the dangers associated with pesticides and soil contamination, and the massive quantities of coal and oil used to transport fruits and vegetables across the country.

(Illustration: AeroFarms)

Plants are grown in austere, compact support structures, their roots sprayed with a nutrient-rich mist carefully formulated to fit the needs of the crop. Temperature and lighting conditions are moderated to create environments conducive to plant growth. Free from the constraints of seasons and weather, farmers using aeroponic technology can grow plants faster, multiplying the number of annual crop cycles they would yield  compared with conventional methods.

Before founding AeroFarms, Ed Harwood, PhD, served as associate director of Cornell Cooperative Extension for Agriculture. Now he is working to translate his extensive knowledge of alternative agriculture to the world of commercial farming. For the past three years, the company has developed the tools and techniques of farming greens (lettuce, arugula) aeroponically so that it can export and sell the program to people with available space in cities.

“We’ve done all the value engineering and development,” Harwood says. “It’s a whole machine. It’s equipment to supply the nutrients, the light, the growing medium.” AeroFarms is designed for large operations — farms producing between 50 and 100 tons of food per year. The company already sold a system to a customer in New Jersey and has several other projects in the pipeline.

The idea of farming without soil, while explored as early as the 1940s, did not generate widespread interest until a few decades ago. GTI patented and produced some of the earliest aeroponic structures in the 1980s, including the Genesis Growing System. Early studies by NASA conducted on the space station Mir indicated that aeroponic farming was not only possible but may in fact produce healthier, more robust crops. Today, aeroponic farming methods are used all around the globe, and companies like AeroFarms are working to bring the technology to even more places.

Still,  the system produced by AeroFarms has limitations. It is mainly designed to produce leafy greens and cannot support, for example, vines and pepper-like plants (yet).  The plant growth requires artificial light, so the system’s carbon footprint is not significantly different from that of conventional farming, Harwood says.

White LEDs such as these may help cut energy requirements.

Cornell University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are currently working to solve these problems. Customized LEDs, Harwood believes, will significantly reduce the energy required by the AeroFarms system.

Some of the other environmental benefits are less obvious. An aeroponics system can be established almost anywhere – in an abandoned building or unleased space, for example. The crops are grown without pesticides, so they are fresher and more nutritious than their non-organic counterparts. They do not need to be washed, and they last longer, too — Harwood says the plants grown in the AeroFarms system have a shelf life of three weeks.

Harwood emphasizes the cleaner, safer nature of aeroponics: “We limit the Three Ds – Dirty, Dangerous and Drudgerous. I view current agriculture as having a lot of that. We eliminate that. We grow without soil. And consumers really want a pesticide-free product.”

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