David Rosenberg, CEO & Co-Founder at AeroFarms talks to Indoor AgTech about new projects in the pipeline and the importance of optimizing seeds for indoor environments.

Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit - David Rosenberg - AeroFarms
David Rosenberg, AEROFARMS

AeroFarms recently broke ground on your next farm in Danville, Virginia. What will this new farm allow you to accomplish?
Our latest farm in Danville, Virginia will be coming online in the second quarter of 2022. AeroFarms’ next-generation Model 5 farm will be the largest and most technologically advanced aeroponic indoor vertical farm in the world. Strategically located in close proximity to more than 1,000 food retailers in the region, the Danville farm will provide access to approximately 50 million people located within a day’s drive. The new farm will advance AeroFarms’ leadership in plant science and technology and expand its leafy greens business to the Mid-Atlantic region with brick-and-mortar retail and e-commerce partners, building upon existing relationships that include Whole Foods Market, ShopRite, Baldor, Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect.

The Danville farm will feature AeroFarms’ proprietary and cutting-edge agSTACK technology, creating a fully connected and digitally controlled farm that integrates hardware, automation, intelligent controls and sensors, machine learning, machine vision, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), and manufacturing execution systems to create a powerful data loop. By collecting and analyzing data through its 26 crop turns per year, AeroFarms’ team of engineers, plant scientists, and programmers gather insights about plants, and apply these learnings for the continuous improvement of its farms, which yield annual productivity up to 390 times greater than traditional field farming, while using up to 95% less water and zero pesticides.

David Rosenberg, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of AeroFarms, will be delivering a presentation at the Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit. He said “The science, technology and innovation that underpin our platform allows us to drive superior unit economics and scale up our business to deliver on our mission of growing the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity. Our customers love our leafy greens, which consistently win on quality, flavor, taste and texture. We are excited to break ground on our new farm, expand our retail presence in the region and bring our exceptional, great tasting products to more customers.”

AeroFarms also announced the build-out of a new Research and Development Farm in Abu Dhabi. What will this new farm allow AeroFarms to accomplish?
As a 90,000 square foot indoor vertical farm, it will be the world’s largest of its kind. The farm will be dedicated to state-of-the-art R&D and commercialization of relevant local crops utilizing AeroFarms’ expertise and proprietary indoor vertical farming technology that uses up to 95% less water and zero pesticides vs. traditional field farming. This new R&D farm will house a multidisciplinary team of horticulturists, engineers, and data scientists, and it will include the following centers of excellence:

  •   Advanced organoleptic research and precision phenotyping laboratory
  •   Advanced seed breeding center
  •   Phytochemical analysis laboratory
  •   Machine vision and machine learning laboratory
  •   Robotics and automation laboratory

Tell us a bit more about the Precision Indoor Plants (PIP) Consortium.
AeroFarms is the scientific lead for the Lettuce Project of the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR)’s Precision Indoor Plants (PIP) Consortium. This project focuses on how to prevent discoloration in indoor-grown lettuce, while increasing lettuce yield and leaf quality.

Wilted and discolored lettuce leaves are not only unappealing, but this discoloration also diminishes flavor, nutrition, consumer appeal and shelf life. Farmers use chemicals and storage techniques to prevent post-harvest discoloration and preserve leaves, but these methods can be costly, and the protection they offer disappears when packaging is opened. PIP Lettuce Project researchers, led by Dr. Csanad Gurdon of AeroFarms, will study how biological and environmental conditions in indoor grow environments affect postharvest discoloration.

Many environmental conditions affect lettuce metabolism and genes related to discoloration and growth, so the researchers will conduct growth experiments in an indoor environment where they can control changes in lighting, heat, humidity, fertilizers, irrigation and other factors. The research team will investigate what conditions lead to slower or faster postharvest discoloration and high-yield, high-quality leaves. They will also study a diverse set of lettuce cultivars to identify genetic markers, biochemical and physical traits that lead to high yield and quality as well as low postharvest discoloration. Existing candidate genes affecting postharvest discoloration will also be edited as part of the project. Finally, the researchers will use the data and experimental results to aid in building and operating indoor grow environments that enable faster lettuce production.

Speaking about the project, Dr. Csanad Gurdon said: “I am thrilled to collaborate with a world-class team of scientists and engineers to execute the first of multiple exciting research projects in the pipeline of the PIP Consortium, leveraging AeroFarms’s expertise and international facilities to benefit the whole industry. This will be a truly global effort with research being conducted in four US states in addition to the Netherlands and the UAE. Experts in plant breeding, indoor growing, gene editing, bioinformatics, metabolomics and lighting will work together to obtain results that will allow improving lettuce quality before and after harvest.”

In addition to leafy greens, what else are you growing at AeroFarms?
Building on our history of growing 50+ different types of strawberries with Brix levels consistently doubling the industry average, we are looking at the broader berry categories. Together with Hortifrut, a global business platform leader in berries marketing, distribution and production, AeroFarms is optimizing blueberry and caneberry plants for indoor growing, allowing AeroFarms and Hortifrut to further expand their knowledge in sustainable farming. The goal of the partnership is to advance the production of the next generation of commercial blueberries and caneberries in vertical farms. The first phase of the partnership is already underway with blueberry plants arriving this spring at AeroFarms global headquarters in Newark, New Jersey U.S.A. where they have over 100,000 square feet of vertical farming space for R&D and commercial production. Hortifrut, through its state-of-the-art genetic program, has bred compact blueberry plants ideal for vertical farming and AeroFarms has optimized its grow systems for berry production. Both companies envision a long-term partnership working together to formulate the commercialization of blueberries and caneberries grown in vertical farms globally. The teams are focused on delivering the most flavorful, nutritious, fresh blueberries to consumers at anytime, anywhere in the world. The agreement considers the experimental site setup, planting of Hortifrut varieties, feasibility, data analysis and potential further expansion.

Seed companies, investors and growers are starting to pay more attention to optimizing seed for indoor environments, how far away are we from seeds that are truly optimized for indoor vertical agriculture?
The seed requirements of an indoor grower such as AeroFarms are very different from an outdoor producer. Outdoor growers need plants resistant to pests and pathogens and produce that has a long shelf life to withstand the time to distribute. For AeroFarms, resistance is not a trait of interest, as we scrupulously keep pests and pathogens out of production so that we can grow pesticide-free. As indoor produce is distributed to retail within a day of the harvest, shelf life is also less important. Instead, great flavor and quality are crucial.

Dr. Csanad Gurdon, AeroFarms’ Senior Scientist, also said: “For me, cultivars that have excellent flavor, and grow rapidly indoors are the most exciting. Great-tasting cultivars that cannot be used for large-scale field production may be perfectly suited for us. I see a novel and exciting effort on behalf of breeding companies to develop such seed. The focus currently is on leafy greens. We already have better available germplasm than a decade ago, and this trend will continue, though we may be a few years away from cultivars specifically bred for an indoor vertical farm. I am looking forward to these new lines, as well as the first not-leafy green crops bred for indoor growing.”

Join the AeroFarms team at the virtual Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit, and watch a live presentation from Co-Founder & CEO David Rosenberg on ‘Insights in Flavor and Trait Optimization’ on June 24 at 14.00 EST. 

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