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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 19, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Former professor creates new plant production technology

As the price of diesel, land and water increases, agriculturists like Ed Hardwood are looking to technological advances in hydroponics to provide a way to stimulate business.

Hardwood, former associate director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension program and founder of Aerofarms, an aeroponic technology manufacturing company, focused on researching and developing the cutting edge of plant production technology at the Extension program.

As the price of diesel, land and water increases, agriculturists like Ed Hardwood are looking to technological advances in hydroponics to provide a way to stimulate business.

Hardwood, former associate director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension program and founder of Aerofarms, an aeroponic technology manufacturing company, focused on researching and developing the cutting edge of plant production technology at the Extension program.

In 2003, Hardwood began developing a business model from the technology he had discovered. By 2004, Hardwood created a prototype of a hydroponic system. From 2004 to 2007, he produced 2,700 pounds of leafy greens that he sold in the Tompkins County area.

“I think I’m a little unique in the sense of being an entrepreneur,” Hardwood said. “I mean, people keep eating food so it’s not like a business where it may be a passing fad.”

Hardwood had 20 years of experience in animal sciences when he was hired at Cornell’s Cooperative Extension. When his colleague retired, he took on the responsibilities of bringing new research and technology of the Cornell professors to all the agricultural educators across the state.

“That’s how I discovered hydroponics,” he said.  “Cornell kept continuing to cut people in the Extension and I made a transition into looking at this as a possible business.”

Louis Albright, hydroponic expert and professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, said hydroponics is growing plants without natural soil. The common definition is to grow something without a root support, he said.

In starting his business, Hardwood said he had three goals: populating all the vacant buildings in New York State with his growing technology, making a lot of money and not working very hard.

“The last two things have been a lot more difficult to accomplish,” Hardwood said. “The first thing — growing leafy greens and putting them in older buildings — actually worked out fairly well.”

Jessica Bloomgarden, chief marketing office for Aerofarms, said they are currently located in the basement of a 1950s Grumman Canoe manufacturing warehouse in Marathon, New York. They are currently in the process of looking to move the manufacturing facility to Ithaca, in order to centralize the company.

“A lot of people in the Ithaca community understand the issues with agriculture right now,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of interest from local people who are looking to join from an employment perspective and to reach out to us for investment opportunities.”

In 2007, Hardwood said by only selling the leafy greens that he produced through aeroponics, he failed to come up with the capital necessary to continue a business, so he mothballed the company. In 2009, Bloomgarden discovered Hardwood and set him up with the Venture Capital firm and they began a new business model.

“Instead of putting together farms what they wanted me to do was to produce the equipment and sell it,” he said.  “I’ve spent the time and capital since then doing the engineering necessary to have something that is aesthetically more pleasing and easier to install.”

Albright said the reason hydroponics and aeroponics have increased in popularity is the whole idea of food safety. If greens are grown and sold locally, there is less of a risk of disease from various outside factors.

“With the ability to control the environment for the plants precisely you get optimized production which increases productivity,” Albright said. “You are doing it in a place that is free of animal manures and pesticides, so it is ready to eat right away, without being rinsed in chlorine three times.”

Bloomgarden said the goal of the company is to rework the way farmers grow food and to transform the agriculture business as a whole.

“A high level, lofty goal would be to transform our current system into a more sustainable and efficient food system by enabling commercial scale vertical farming in urban centers,” she said.

Hardwood said his main focus is working on transforming rural, traditional farming into urban high-tech production. He said he expects a warm welcome from the Ithaca community when they move in.

“Ithaca is a very unique place,” Hardwood said. “I am sure the community will be very happy to have another small start-up business that supports the intellectual capacity that is available in Ithaca.”