Cinder-block walls still bear Day-Glo paint murals inside the former laser tag arena that once hosted epic battles among New Jersey teens who breathlessly chased each other in a high-tech version of the incredibly low-tech game of tag. Nowadays, AeroFarms has taken over the cavernous building to operate one of the country’s biggest vertical farms. It’s growing crops and improving the model of traditional agriculture by relying on the most high-tech tools available to reduce water and land use and to eliminate pesticide use.
That holds special appeal in an age when pesticides drift from field to field while demand for organic produce grows, and farmers increasingly struggle to get enough water to irrigate land in the face of years-long droughts. Behind an orange door here, AeroFarms has a temperature-controlled, pest-free world. Workers wear hazmat-like suits and hairnets as they tend to rows of leafy greens that stack all the way up to the ceiling in a place that has no seasons. These warehouses can grow organic produce in less space than traditional farmland uses and bring farms to unexpected locations, including urban food deserts.
Yet, expensive equipment and limitations on what crops can be grown have meant the promise of vertical farms remains a promise in many ways—and many such ventures have met the fate of yesteryear’s laser tag arenas. Where other vertical farms, including a quiet attempt by tech giant Google, have tried and failed, AeroFarms has been tinkering with the right formula.