Why data is an essential nutrient for AeroFarms crops
Urban agriculture pioneer AeroFarms eschews pesticides and herbicides. It gets away with using considerably less water than traditional growers of the leafy greens in which it specializes — it squeezes out almost 95 percent of what’s traditionally used. But there’s one ingredient it can’t go without: data.
That imperative drove the well-backed startup’s partnership with information technology giant Dell. Two big projects are underway there, within the 70,000-square-foot facility that houses Aerofarms’ ninth indoor farming operation in Newark, New Jersey.
The first initiative uses sensors to track information at virtually every step of the growing process — from seeding to germination to growing to harvesting and packaging — and send it wirelessly to servers where it is closely analyzed. Aerofarms uses that information to improve taste, texture, color, yield and nutrition metrics for its crops, according to a case study published by the two companies.
The second project employs special cameras to track the spectral conditions of the grow trays, and of the lighting technologies crucial for nurturing arugula, kale and mustard greens — products that AeroFarms sells to local supermarkets under the Dream Greens brand. (It nurtures 400 plant varieties.) If something unusual is detected, an alert is sent to a ruggedized tablet computer. The images are also collected and analyzed.
"We have this fully connected farm that is ever becoming even more connected," AeroFarms co-founder CEO David Rosenberg told me Tuesday during the Techonomy conference in New York. "That enables us to both manage the farm as well as take information from the farm and send it to the right people to make the most of that data."
AeroFarms relies heavily on real-time information for food safety and operational processes. It can produce a crop in just 15 days: It shrank that one day using its information metrics, but the data is also used to influence taste and texture.
"How we organize and manage that data, it’s incredibly important," he said. "When you have that as your lens, in looking at a business, you see problems in different ways and solutions come and get prioritized in different ways. That’s OK."
That information will be critical for automating vertical farming processes to the point where they can be commercialized more "meaningfully." One reason AeroFarms dismantled its new facility’s predecessor was that it didn’t have the scale to be automated effectively, Rosenberg said.
Often touted as the world’s largest vertical farming operation, AeroFarms employs about 130 people, including 30 formerly incarcerated individuals. The company closed a $40 million Series D funding round in October led by Meraas Holdings (from Dubai), ADM Capital (London) and Alliance Bernstein (New York). Furniture giant Ikea was also an investor in that round. There is a "strategic" element to that relationship, but Rosenberg declined to elaborate.
So far, AeroFarms has raised more than $100 million. It is far from the only company focused on urban farming technologies — even as Rosenberg was chatting with me at the conference in Times Square, hydroponic startup Freight Farms was offering tours of its own approach downtown in the Soho district. The Boston-based company grows vegetables in converted shipping containers.
Since 2013, roughly $2 billion has been invested in agricultural technology (aka agtech) across more than 700 deals, estimated Zoe Leavitt, senior retail analyst at CB Insights, who moderated a panel about the future of food during the Techonomy conference. The investments are coalescing around three primary areas, she suggested.
- Those that promise to improve the nutritional value and sustainability of food we eat: This would include lab-grown meat ventures such as Memphis Meats (Tyson and Cargill are both investors), those focused on seafood (Finless Foods) and even those tackling pet food (Wild Earth and Bond Pet). China has even negotiated a $300 million trade deal with Israel centered on research in this area.
- Those that rethink the growing and harvesting process: This includes robots such as the technology that Abundant Robotics is developing for apple picking; predictive agronomics information such as the data on climate-related agricultural conditions being amassed by aWhere; or one of many irrigation management systems that are cropping up. There are even robotic bees flying around in labs, as a recent patent filing by Walmart suggests. Actually, scientists at Harvard have been pollinating this idea since 2013.
- Those that focus on more efficient distribution methods: One of the biggest concerns here is addressing food waste, and one example mentioned by Leavitt is Apeel Sciences, which is working on an organic coating intended to help reduce produce spoilage.