By Gina Cherelus
NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - In an old warehouse in Newark, New Jersey, that once housed the state's biggest indoor paint ball arena, leafy green plants such as kale, arugula and watercress sprout from tall metal towers under bright lights.
A local company named AeroFarms has built what it says is the world's largest indoor vertical farm, without the use of soil or sunlight.
Its ambitious goal is to grow high-yielding crops via economical methods to provide locally sourced food to the community, protect the environment and ultimately even combat hunger worldwide.
"We use about 95 percent less water to grow the plants, about 50 percent less fertilizer as nutrients and zero pesticides, herbicide, fungicides," said David Rosenberg, co-founder and chief executive officer of AeroFarms. "We're helping create jobs as well as create a good story to inspire the community and inspire other businesses."
Inside the 30,000 square feet (2,800 square meter) warehouse, farmers tend the short-stemmed plants, which are illuminated by rows of light emitting diode, or LED, lamps and planted in white fabric made from recycled water bottles.
The levels of light, temperature and nutrients reaching the plants in the 5-foot (1.5 meter) wide, 80-foot (24 meter) tall columns are controlled using what AeroFarms describes as a patented growing algorithm.
Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer Marc Oshima said that by producing indoors, AeroFarms can grow plants within 12 to 16 days, compared with 30 to 45 days outdoors. A year-round grow cycle protected from the changeable climate means that indoor farms can be 75 times more productive, he said.
The company plans to move its operation this year to a new facility in Newark with 70,000 square feet (6,503 square meters)of growing space.
Most green, leafy plants thrive during the spring and fall in sunnier states such as California and Arizona. Setting up indoor farms in New Jersey eliminates the environmental costs of transporting those crops to consumers in the Northeast.
Oshima declined to say how much the Newark operation produces, but said the firm hopes to develop 25 more farms, in the United States and abroad, over the next five years.
Asked if customers would prefer the fruits of indoor farming over organic produce, he said other concerns prevail.
"The No. 1 trend at retail and what the consumer is looking for is local, so here we're able to bring the farm where the consumer is all year round," Oshima said.
(Reporting by Gina Cherelus; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler)