Is this how urban farming reaches scale? – Circulate

Two million pounds of fresh produce, including salads, potatoes and herbs, are grown and distributed to the New Jersey and New York City area each year from AeroFarms’ Newark facility. However, instead of open fields, soil, sunlight and large quantities of water, this facility demonstrates aeroponics at scale, and is beginning to be viewed by many as a potential model for the future of urban farming.

Traditional farming methods require acres of land and tonnes of water, but AeroFarms’ flagship facility takes up just 70,000 square feet and uses 95% less water than open field agriculture.

Shelf-like bins house the crops, while LED lights replace sunlight and reusable fabric extracted from recycled bottles replace soil. Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are not required, while the need for fertiliser is reduced by 50%.

Credit: AerofarmsCredit: Aerofarms

Staggering crops throughout the year and the ability to grow in tight spaces have been critical to the high levels of production achieved; they switch between 22 different crops featuring nearly 250 varieties of fruit and vegetables during the year, all while growing 70 times more per square foot compared against other methods.

In many ways, aeroponics as a technique is a direct response to the modern context, where space is becoming more limited, awareness of water finiteness is increasing and a large (increasing) percentage of the global population lives in cities.

There are a growing number of examples of innovators experimenting with the possibilities of urban farming. However, there are very few projects that have achieved the scale and commercial success of AeroFarms.

Photo via Visual huntPhoto via Visual hunt

Of course, even this method isn’t free of questions. For some, the prospect of a future where large quantities of crops are grown without any natural sunlight is unpalatable and there may be unknown issues caused by that disconnection, though it’s worth noting that the technology has existed for some time and has been thoroughly tested.

However, there’s no question that the global food system needs innovation and this solution is one of those that offers the most promise, particularly from the perspective of being able to grow the volumes of food needed to supply modern cities.

Seb Egerton-Read Seb writes daily content for Circulate across the full spectrum of the website’s topics. Previously he has spent five years as a freelance writer for a number of websites and blogs. You can e-mail Seb at seb[at]

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Sep 15, Successful economical aeroponic system on small scale

by Thomas Gracias
(Pune, India)

Hi, this is Senthil 2. Well, you got me interested in the hydroponics and aeroponics. I would like to know: in a city with zero distance to nearest market, what are the initial investment costs for starting a project on a 4500 sq ft plot? What are yearly costs? What would be the likely produce output per year? Is it economically viable??

Answer: Senthil- first, it is fantastic to see your interest in hydroponics as well as business….these are two passions of my own. Before I begin to answer your question, you must keep in mind this will be a very, very general guideline. Small changes can lead to large differences in the end cost. For example the initial cost to set up? It will vary greatly depending on the specific system(s) you decide to use in the garden space.

Is it economically viable? Well, that depends greatly on the specific crop you decide to grow and your ability to communicate with people that you have a product and/or service available for them to consider purchasing. Your ability to run a business will be equally important as your ability to garden bamboo (for example), and both must be considered to determine if an idea will be economically viable. Just from my own research, bamboo is fast growing and a valuable commodity….making it one of the better crop choices if the economic viability of the operation is important to you. Green bamboo and Moso, in particular, are two of the best commercial varieties (flooring, furniture, paper, shoots).

Your initial costs are going to change, also, with your crop choice. The requirements to grow bamboo are considerably different from the requirements to grow Oyster mushrooms, for example.

Profitability. Keeping your expenses low. Keeping the sale price of your produce high. Communicating with people that you have a product available for sale (marketing). Actually getting these people to buy something when they finally contact you (sales). Figuring out better ways to make more sales by taking the produce from your garden and imagining what your potential customers need or want (product development and market research). There are things I would do to keep expenses low for this kind of business. For this example I will go into more detail considering a bamboo growing business.

Bamboo would be a low cost item to grow. Really, you don’t even need a hydroponic system….you can plant the bamboo directly into the ground and simply irrigate it right there in the ground until harvest. Bamboo is the fastest growing plant on Earth (a plus for profitability), and has practically NO natural pests. This means very little or no cost for pesticides or other pest control. Bamboo requires very low levels of nutrients. This means the cost of hydroponic nutrients will also be low. If you brew your own compost tea for the hydroponic system, your nutrient cost can be very low….almost nothing except for your time making it.

Growing directly in the ground, using a large reservoir and several water pumps, 4500 square feet can be irrigated with a hydroponic system that may cost as little as $150 new. The more reservoirs, plant containers, gutters, pipes, and pumps you add the more the initial costs will go up. It would be easy to spend $1,500 or more putting different hydroponic systems in place on the same 4500 square feet. To put grow lights (10) in the space would require an additional $1,650 at the very minimum.

Oyster mushrooms are another fast growing and very profitable crop to consider. Potentially more profitable than bamboo on the same square footage.

OK- keeping expenses low….on this 45 foot x 100 foot piece of land you have (4500 sq ft), you will need a small space for composting and/or brewing your own compost tea. It is the most effective way to reduce or eliminate the cost of nutrients to your business. Alternately, you can compost at a different location (like your backyard at home) and simply bring the finished compost and/or compost tea to the garden. This would ensure the entire 4500 square feet remains dedicated entirely to production.

Having the entire space lit by natural sunlight is a great way to reduce the artificial lighting bill. It is also a great strategy if you decide to grow mushrooms or bamboo- both of which do excellent under natural sunlight. You will have to carefully work out the numbers (all expenses and possible profit) to see if growing various different crops under artificial light will be profitable or not for you. This involves being very honest when you are doing your market research, determining how many potential customers you may have, determining how many people you are able to communicate with, determining how many people you will be able to sell to, etc..

So we have covered initial costs. Let’s look at yearly costs for the same 4500 sq feet. This would be a plot only 45ft x 100ft. To irrigate it with plain water every day, if done in an efficient way, may cost $100 per month. If you collect rain water or have a well, this expense can be close to zero. If you are making your own compost and/or compost tea to use as fertilizer, your yearly fertilizer costs can be as low as zero dollars….but you will spend perhaps 80-100 hours per year collecting materials to compost, working the compost piles, and making the compost tea(s) for the system. Paying for every bit of fertilizer on a plot this size can easily cost $120 every 8 weeks, or about $1,000 per year.

A garden lit by natural sun: zero dollars per year. The same space lit by 10- 600watt high pressure sodium and/or metal halide grow lights would cost about $350 per month to run. Especially if you are also trying to COOL the lights and/or the grow room (in the case of an indoor grow). Yearly, this comes to about $4,200 and assumes the lamps are each run an average of 12 hours per day.

So, without considering property taxes and a whole bunch of other crazy stuff, yearly operating expenses for a small garden can run somewhere between zero dollars (but requiring a lot of labor) to $6,400, still requiring quite a bit of labor, and not including any of the initial setup expense.

Recap: initial cost: $0-$3,500 (doing it cheaply)
yearly costs: $0-$6,400 (conservative)

Now let’s take a look at output per year. Again, this will vary greatly depending on the crop(s) you decide to grow. I will continue to look at bamboo and mushrooms. Mushrooms take about 8 weeks start to finish, and can produce approximately 9lbs of fresh mushrooms from a standard size laundry basket (more if a second/third flush is produced). In a space 45’x 100′, you can fit about 600 of these units before you would be required to double-stack them. You can potentially grow 5,400lbs of fresh oyster mushrooms every 8 weeks (assuming 100% of the garden space is dedicated to production, and assuming the operation is 100% efficient with no product loss). If you do 8 grows per year, that comes to 43,200lbs of fresh mushrooms. Believe me, your biggest problem will be SELLING all of the mushrooms if you are able to grow them!

For bamboo: some can grow up to 12 inches per day. Top dollar sticks of bamboo that are 15 feet or 20 feet long can easily grow in one season. Individual canes grow to full length in about 2-3 months once the bamboo plant is established and mature. It is difficult for me to tell exactly how much a 4500 sq ft plot would produce per year….but 4 sticks of moso bamboo 3 inches in diameter by 8 feet long sells for $99.00. I’ve also seen two living bamboo plants, each 12 inches tall, selling for $29.99. Bamboo crafts and furniture sell well and command top dollar if quality manufactured.

At least one source online claims that moso bamboo needs 5 years to establish mature, timber producing bunches. The picture above gives you some idea of how many canes a small garden can produce.

As I mentioned before, even small changes to the system, crop selection, and feeding can greatly change your initial start up costs and yearly operating costs. I do have one final tip….years ago I began using deep water culture (DWC) hydroponic systems, because I could grow my plants directly in standing water and did not have to purchase fresh grow media for each new crop. This alone greatly reduced my operating expenses. I hope this gives you some idea and some direction, and Happy Growing!

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