Will NJ’s Million Dollar Investment In Vertical Farming Yield Long Term Growth?

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Written By: Theo Longsdon, Agritecture Intern

Amidst the growth of urban farming projects in the US, a notable development took place earlier in June with the announcement that Jersey City, New Jersey, is to fund the construction and operation of 10 vertical farms in the city; the first municipal vertical farm program in the country. 

The city has partnered up with AeroFarms in a three-year contract worth $987,000 - with just over half of this sum funding the construction of the farm units and the rest covering the project’s maintenance. The farms will use aeroponics to grow a range of vegetables and will be situated at senior centers, schools, public housing complexes and municipal buildings across the city, taking six weeks to install, and the first vegetables being ready just two weeks after.

The principal motive behind the program is the recognition that there is a growing need to enhance access to locally grown nutritious food and improve the diet and overall well being of citizens. This is in part related to the impact of Covid-19, which according to Steve Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, has had a “disproportionate impact on people with pre-existing heart conditions, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes which is directly linked to a person’s diet”. The venture will seek to counter these issues and promote a healthy, sustainable lifestyle through producing 58,000 lb of fresh vegetables over three years – roughly equating to 100,000 servings – and through holding dietary workshops and health screenings for participants. The hope is that a surge in awareness about healthy eating practices, coupled with the distribution of fresh, nutritious produce, will drive a change in people’s eating habits that leads to improvements in the wider, long-term health of the community.  

The creation of jobs will be a further benefit of the program. AeroFarms are significant job providers; they have created about 120 jobs through their projects in Newark, and their new indoor vertical farming facility in Danville is projected to generate 92 jobs for the area. Whilst there has been no indication about the exact number of jobs that will be created as part of the program, with the introduction of 10 farms across the city it is clear a number of employment opportunities will arise, thus helping to stimulate economic development in the area.

Yet despite these upbeat anticipations, the cost of constructing and maintaining the 10 vertical farms is high, with the contract worth just under $1m. By AeroFarms’ own estimation the 10 farms will produce around 58,000 lb of produce over their 3 years, meaning that it will cost the city about $17 to produce one lb of produce. This is a colossal sum, and represents an expensive economic venture in a time when the city faces a $70m budget shortfall as a result of Covid-19.

In such a climate, an alternative option for the city would be to invest money in supporting local farms and promoting the distribution of their produce. A quick look at local farms in the region highlights how this may be a far more cost-effective option: Alstede Farms, a 600-acre farm based in Chester Township retails a wide range of fresh organic vegetables at a significantly lower price – selling a bunch of their spinach for $2.99; a bunch of kale for $2.99; and a pound of beans for $3.99. Another organic farm in the region – Terhune Orchards - offers similarly low prices, retailing a bunch of their kale for $3.25 per bunch, a Romaine lettuce head for the same price, and a head of green cabbage for $2.95. If the city was seeking a more cost-friendly way of promoting healthy consumption patterns, then taking such an approach may have been the more viable option. 

But whilst they may represent the more costly option, vertical farms hold a number of advantages over traditional soil farms. Crop yields tend to be higher, as crops can be grown all year round and conditions can be controlled to maximize growth. Having this controlled environment reduces the susceptibility to climate and local weather conditions that is a major drawback of traditional soil farming. The land area needed to cultivate the produce is far lower, as the vegetables can be stacked vertically – a major benefit at a time of increasing pressure on land. Vertical farms also use much less water as they facilitate the production of crops with 70-95% less water compared to traditional cultivation practices. Finally, the generation of local, year-round farmworker jobs is a clear advantage over conventional outdoor farms in the NJ area that depend primarily on seasonal labor. Taking such factors into account may indeed justify the higher cost of produce associated with the program.

One notable stipulation of the program is that those wanting to gain free access to the produce must partake in healthy eating workshops and quarterly health screenings. This entails the obvious risk that the city has overestimated the demand for education and health monitoring amongst Jersey City residents, which could mean that the uptake is lower than anticipated. If the demand does fall short of what the city anticipates, then issues of distribution may arise and the program’s effectiveness may be undermined. Its success will, therefore, depend to a large extent on the willingness of residents to spend time participating in these workshops and regular health screenings.

Jersey City’s newly launched program represents a pioneering attempt to combat deficiencies in access to locally grown, nutritious produce and awareness about healthy dietary patterns. The decision by the municipal body to step in and sponsor the vertical farms is ambitious and unprecedented in the US, but it also throws up some major questions. For example; will the plan of action lead to a long-term alteration in the diets and lifestyles of those involved? Do the associated benefits outweigh the cost of the program? And ultimately, is it a city’s duty to feed people through its own asset or should it instead focus on policies, incentives and programs that encourage the growth and support of local farms?

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