August 28, 2017
Michele Brown, President & CEO | Choose New Jersey, Inc.
The Transformative Power of Urban Farms
One of the most geographically diverse states in America, New Jersey is made up of bucolic farmland, thriving cities, seaside resort towns, and everything in between. True to its nickname as “The Garden State,” New Jersey is at once an agricultural powerhouse and the most densely populated state in the country. It makes sense that our State is on the forefront of the urban farm movement. Kula Urban Farm, a successful community garden in Asbury Park, and Aerofarms, the world’s largest indoor vertical farm in Newark, are revolutionizing how we grow and think about food.
Kula Urban Farm
Kula Urban Farm was founded by nonprofit organization Interfaith Neighbors Inc. in 2014 on Atkins Avenue in Asbury Park as an outgrowth of the Kula Café program located next door. Like the eatery, the farm provides job training, educational programs, and free fresh produce to those in need. The year-round garden and greenhouse consist of a commercial growing space and a neighborhood garden where produce is given away to people in the community. Plants are grown using both soil-based and hydroponic techniques and are raised without pesticides. Following one of the tenets of the Slow Food movement, the farm is bringing new meaning to the consumer-stakeholder relationship as volunteers can, quite literally, enjoy the fruits of their labor. Kula Café keeps the community engaged by hosting dinners and events to increase food literacy.
Even though Kula Urban Farm is a feel-good community project, don’t count out its viable economic success and impact on business. The commercial growing space within the garden is its main source of revenue. Kula partners with Asbury Park restaurateurs to bring wholesale produce to their menus. Local suppliers lend supply chain transparency and integrity to farm-to-table claims, delighting patrons who nosh on freshly picked fruits and vegetables at peak nutritional value.
In addition, Kula’s workforce development efforts are addressing the high unemployment and lack of workforce training available in the city, particularly on the west side. Through the Kula Farm Experience, a paid trainee program, residents work on the farm, learning about growing food and maintaining a productive garden. Kula Farm Experience participants are integral in the ongoing expansion of Kula Urban Farm’s community outreach; participants have recently built, planted and begun harvesting a new community garden on Springwood Avenue, utilizing abandoned property that was purchased by Interfaith Neighbors, Inc. This latest project, known officially as the Farm Without Borders – and nicknamed the “Turf Garden” by local residents – provides unlimited community access to fresh produce and engages community members in all planting and harvesting activities.
Since 2004, AeroFarms has been on a mission to reinvent farming as we know it, and has gained global recognition for doing so. Farmers at heart, AeroFarms grows leafy greens all year round without sunlight, soil or pesticides in a meticulously controlled environment within a converted steel mill in Newark’s Ironbound section. The company utilizes energy-efficient LED lights and an aeroponic mist system that allow plants to thrive in rows of high density growing beds, while using 95% less water. This impressive technology drastically reduces the environmental impact and has created a new efficiency standard for food production. The AeroFarms team includes horticulturists, engineers, microbiologists, and dietitians at the top of their field as the company carefully monitors the growing patterns of crops and collects precise data to optimize quality, taste and nutrition.
For those living in Newark, produce grown within its geographic borders is a rarity, and fresh, healthy food is not always easily accessible. AeroFarms prides itself on being an environmental steward and a responsible corporate citizen as a Certified B Corporation. The company employs local Newark residents to tend to the greens, including a re-entry program for past offenders. AeroFarms also houses one of its mini-farm units within the Philips Academy Charter School in Newark to engage students with the growing process and ensure more nutritious lunches.
Recently, AeroFarms announced its expansion to Camden with a Grow NJ incentive grant awarded by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA). Upon completion, the 78,000 square-foot space will surpass the Newark facility’s record as the world’s largest indoor vertical farm. The company has already committed to hiring and training Camden residents to be their employees and local advocates.
Kula Urban Farm and Aerofarms have identified incredible opportunities, and are addressing some of the most pressing issues that our food system and urban centers face. Their commitment to sustainability, vocational training efforts, and work to eliminate food deserts is inspiring, due in part to outside-the-box thinking and innovative technology. Kula Urban Farm and Café is a community beacon, and Aerofarms is the undisputed commercial leader in indoor farming. Planting their roots in the most unlikely places, these New Jersey establishments are leading the charge on food security, and truly represent the agricultural dynamism of the Garden State.