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Front row at a vertical farm

A farm producing two million pound of leafy greens prompts an image of rural acres, tractors, and high volume irrigation systems. But that image is being disrupted. Picture instead a 70,000-square-foot warehouse, technicians dressed in cleanroom suits, and stacks upon stacks of plant beds bathed in LED lighting.

AeroFarms’ Newark, N.J., facility sits on barely 1.5 acres, yet promises to produce as much food as 120 acres of traditional farmland, using 95 percent less water, and no soil or pesticides, with harvests year-round.

Juliana Philippa Kerrest, a student in the MIT Sloan/Harvard Kennedy School of Government dual degree program, joined the AeroFarms marketing team this summer as an intern working on competitive analysis and problem-solving in distribution. Now she has a front row seat to the ripple effect of disruption that comes with a revolutionary food production model, and is developing insights that can impact critical food supply issues in emerging economies and high-density urban areas.

Situated in a warehouse in one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S.—there’s more than 11,000 people per square mile in Newark—AeroFarms monitors 30,000 data points to grow leafy greens in a post-consumer recycled cloth made from plastic bottles. Bathed in LED—light-emitting diode—lighting, the exposed roots are fed with a nutrient-rich mist and plants reach maturity in half the time of traditional methods.Kerrest’s role has been research on competition in the growing vertical farming industry, as well as work on distribution. She’s involved in determining how far away product can be delivered, balancing competitive factors like maintaining quality during shipping and ensuring a minimal environmental footprint.

She’s had the opportunity to be involved in introducing buyers to the product, and many arrive skeptical to visit a “farm” that looks more like a sci-fi movie set.

“Some think the tech is cool,” Kerrest says. “One thought it looked like a nightclub with the purple light, and they have a lot of questions.”

“But a part of the food movement is people wanting to know where their food is coming from,” she says. “It’s about being more environmentally sustainable, easier access to affordable food, with no pesticides. All of that is related to urban food and food deserts, and is very related to the cities continuing to grow [in density] here and around the world.”

Kerrest marvels at not only the innovation in vertical farming methods methods, but how the company’s work is prompting other innovations. Founded in 2004, AeroFarms was among the first players in vertical farming, and the field is already spurring related innovations in LED lighting and cooling systems, Kerrest says.

“All non-greenhouse indoor vertical farms use LED,” she says, “and now there are LED companies specifically targeting agriculture, and the price is coming down. Another company is licensing and selling indoor farming cooling systems—getting rid of heat is an important factor—aiming for a zero carbon footprint.”

Meanwhile, AeroFarms is growing, hiring in operations, construction, and research and development, among other areas.

Kerrest, who returns to MIT and Harvard this fall to continue work towards her degree, is focusing her studies on emerging markets and the developing world. Though still expensive to launch, she sees a future in indoor vertical farming in addressing food supply issues where it’s needed most.

“I find this movement and technology very promising, because it addresses so many of the challenges we are currently facing,” she says. “There’s the environmental piece: climate change and water shortages are both realities, and the way we’re currently living in and treating the world is not sustainable. We also have increasing urbanization around the world with a quickly growing population."

“The question people keep asking is ‘How are we going to feed the nine billion people we’ll have in 2050?’" Kerrest says. “I’m interested in the new types of jobs and opportunities in developing countries presented by technology and business models like this.”

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