IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

Generation of farmers use alternative techniques to grow crops

BY Joanna Gagis, Producer/Correspondent |

When our founders coined the term “The Garden State”, they likely didn’t envision trays of plants and artificial light. But these have become the symbols of an alternative farming movement that’s on the rise in New Jersey. Organic, sustainable farming that connects fresh produce with the communities it feeds.

A pioneer in this movement is AeroFarms, the world’s largest vertical farm located right in Newark. AeroFarms is using a system called aeroponics, where instead of sun and soil, crops are grown with LED lighting and nutrient-enriched water. AeroFarms plans to open its tenth and largest space in Camden later this year.

“I think that New Jersey’s definitely doing a lot in terms of our vertical farming. I mean, they have a huge one up in Newark which is AeroFarms, which is really paving the way for these urban farms,” said Patrick Gigliotti, co-founder of IndoGrow.

One of those new farms is IndoGrow founded by Patrick Gigliotti and Lou Monte right intheir Cherry Hill home.

“I said, I wonder if we can grow micro-greens in our house. Like, I wonder if that’s something that’s possible. So we did a bit more research and we realized that it probably was possible,” Gigliotti said.

Gigliotti says micro-greens are huge in the culinary scene today.

“I mean four, five, six generations from now, who knows if that soil’s even going to have any nutrients left? Who knows if you’re going to be able to add nutrients to it? This is what I think the future is going to be. This is the big ‘aha’ moment.”

“The first reason is they look pretty ,” he said. “All the different colors, the pinks, the purples, the yellows. The second reason is they do have really intense flavor profiles, like arugula for instance. The flavor, the ‘pepperiness’ that you’re going to get from that is going to be 5 to 10 times the intensity that you’re going to get from regular arugula. So those types of flavors, that’s what the chefs are really looking for.”

Micro-greens mature very quickly — a crop will be fully grown in just about two weeks. The average lettuce takes a minimum of 45 days, some 60, some even longer to mature. Faster turnaround means more product to sell.

“I like to say seed to feed is anywhere from 10 to 14 days for most things,” Gigliotti said. “We deliver in less than a day, so we usually harvest same day, or if not, the night before.”

Gigliotti and Monte wanted a sustainable model because they’re concerned about the future of the farming industry.

“There’s only so much farmland. The viability of that soil,” Gigliotti said. “I mean four, five, six generations from now, who knows if that soil’s even going to have any nutrients left? Who knows if you’re going to be able to add nutrients to it? This is what I think the future is going to be. This is the big ‘aha’ moment.”

A lack of space didn’t stop one farmer from setting up ‘crop.’ Daniel Cortes has partnered with local homeowners, essentially leasing their backyards, planting a variety of crops and creating a micro-farm.

“I thought it was a great business model to adopt because in New Jersey property is expensive and I said, well I can’t just, I’m not in a position to buy farmland right now, so I’ll just go ahead and approach my neighbors and see if they’re open to it,” Cortes said.

MicroUrb has grown to four yards across several towns in Gloucester County, just south of Camden. He provides the homeowners with $20 worth of produce from each harvest. And to make the most of his small space, Cortes grows crops that mature in 50 days or less.

“What I’m bringing is a new model that still hasn’t caught on yet. Because when people think of a farm, they think of a conventional farm out in the rural area. So this is more of bringing the farm into the community so people can start to reconnect with where their food comes from and how it’s grown.”

“I don’t have the time or space to grow corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes. So what I do grow is lettuce, radishes, beets. In the summer, I do summer squash, tomatoes,” Cortes said. “But other than that it’s all quick-growing, arugula, spinach, lettuce, mainly a lot of greens.”

“What I’m bringing is a new model that still hasn’t caught on yet. Because when people think of a farm, they think of a conventional farm out in the rural area. So this is more of bringing the farm into the community so people can start to reconnect with where their food comes from and how it’s grown,” Cortes said.

Tony Gibbons has revitalized a dilapidated greenhouse in Newark’s Branch Brook Park into a thriving company called Radicle Farm.

“It had fallen into, really, disrepair and decay to some extent,” Gibbons said, “So, about four years ago we came in, cleaned it out and set up some hydroponic systems with the aim of really turning it into a productive space again for the county.”

Gibbons uses a system of hydroponic farming called Nutrient Film Technique, or NFT, to grow an assortment of baby greens like bock choy, kale and chard.

“So really we’re just managing the growth for, depending on the plant, for about three to five weeks,” Gibbons said. “So there are reservoirs underneath the tables, and then there’s pumps that are pumping it directly through to the cables, into the channels. It’s just gravity that’s taking it down and it’s heading right back into the reservoir.”

The recirculating water system uses only 10 percent of the water required in more traditional farming methods and it reduces dangerous water run-off into streams and rivers.

“It can be harmful for plant life both in the streams and also the surrounding areas. So we’re able to eliminate that risk by growing indoors and growing hydroponically,” said Gibbons.

To avoid pesticides Gibbons uses a system called Integrated Pest Management.

“Beneficial insects, crop rotations, making sure that we’re planting the proper seeds for the proper time of year so we’re not forcing it to do things out of seasonality,” he explained.

Feeding the community is the mission of City Green, a farm with locations in Clifton and Paterson. Just off a busy highway in northern New Jersey is an expansive stretch of 5 acres that’s combining organic farming with a civic mission.

“One of the biggest missions is food access,” said Henry Anderson, the farm manager at City Green in Clifton. “Providing food access to low income communities; people that don’t have access to fresh healthy vegetables. So, all of this food grown here is going towards our markets that is providing that food for them.”

The more we can let nature work on our side and let the plants be healthy in a natural way, the more healthy they will be in the future.”

You won’t find fertilization, pesticides, or carefully prepared soil on this farm. City Green is using an approach called Permaculture, where crops grow in a naturally-occurring ecosystem, complete with all the weeds, pests and fungi who call this land home.

“This is our permaculture food forest we call it. So, essentially, we’re trying to develop a forest-like ecosystem here, which means we’re introducing perennial crops that are beneficial for us, such as berries, nuts and fruit. And we want them to exist in almost a wild setting where they are kind of taking care of each other,” said Anderson.

City Green also rotates its crops every year so nutrients aren’t depleted from the soil. An approach Anderson would like to see catch on.

“Traditional farmers are going to need to start applying sustainable methods, because our climate is changing so rapidly. It’s not secure to be depleting the soil anymore with pesticides or even synthetic fertilizers. The more we can let nature work on our side and let the plants be healthy in a natural way, the more healthy they will be in the future.”

City Green is running a youth education program, where kids from Paterson and the surrounding area come to visit. Many of them seeing a farm for the first time.