No Soil. No Growing Seasons. Just Add Water and Technology.

MOREHEAD, Ky. — In this gorgeous city on the sting of coal nation, a high-tech greenhouse so giant it may cowl 50 soccer fields glows with the pinks and yellows of 30,600 LED and high-pressure sodium lights.

Inside, and not using a teaspoon of soil, practically three million kilos of beefsteak tomatoes develop on 45-feet-high vines whose roots are bathed in nutrient-enhanced rainwater. Other vines maintain 1000’s of small, juicy snacking tomatoes with sufficient tang to impress Martha Stewart, who’s on the board of AppHarvest, a start-up that harvested its first crop right here in January and plans to open 11 extra indoor farms in Appalachia by 2025.

In a way more industrial setting close to the Hackensack River in Kearny, N.J., trays stuffed with candy child butterhead lettuce and sorrel that tastes of lemon and inexperienced apple are stacked excessive in a windowless warehouse — what is named a vertical farm. Bowery, the biggest vertical-farming firm within the United States, manipulates gentle, humidity, temperature and different circumstances to develop produce, bankrolled by traders like Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, and the cooks José Andrés and Tom Colicchio.

“Once I tasted the arugula, I was sold,” stated Mr. Colicchio, who for years rolled his eyes at individuals who claimed to develop scrumptious hydroponic produce. “It was so spicy and so vibrant, it just blew me away.”

The tomatoes at AppHarvest had been scrumptious sufficient to draw an funding from Martha Stewart.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

The two operations are a part of a brand new technology of hydroponic farms that create exact rising circumstances utilizing technological advances like machine-learning algorithms, knowledge analytics and proprietary software program methods to coax personalized flavors and textures from fruits and greens. And they’ll do it virtually anyplace.

These farms arrive at a pivotal second, as swaths of the nation wither within the warmth and drought of local weather change, abetted partly by sure types of agriculture. The demand for regionally grown meals has by no means been stronger, and the pandemic has proven many individuals that the meals provide chain isn’t as resilient as they thought.

But not everyone seems to be on board. These large farms develop produce in nutrient-rich water, not the wholesome soil that many individuals consider is on the coronary heart of each deliciousness and diet. They can devour huge quantities of electrical energy. Their most ardent opponents say the claims being made for hydroponics are deceptive and even harmful.

“At the moment, I would say the bad guys are winning,” stated Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer and the manager director of the Real Organic Project. “Hydroponic production is not growing because it produces healthier food. It’s growing because of the money. Anyone who frames this as food for the people or the environment is just lying.”

The sprawling Kentucky farm is considered one of a dozen that AppHarvest hopes to open throughout Appalachia.Credit…Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

The technical time period for hydroponic farming is managed environmental agriculture, however individuals within the enterprise confer with it as indoor farming. What was once merely known as farms are actually known as land-based farms or open-field agriculture.

“We’ve perfected mother nature indoors through that perfect combination of science and technology married with farming,” stated Daniel Malechuk, the chief government of Kalera, an organization that sells entire lettuces, with the roots intact, in plastic clamshells for about the identical value as different prewashed lettuce.

In March, the corporate opened a 77,000-square-foot facility south of Atlanta that may produce greater than 10 million heads of lettuce a yr. Similar indoor farms are coming to Houston, Denver, Seattle, Honolulu and St. Paul, Minn.

The fantastic thing about the method, Mr. Malechuk and different executives say, is that it isn’t restricted by seasons. The value and rising interval for a crop may be predicted exactly and farms may be constructed wherever individuals want contemporary produce.

“We can grow in the Antarctic,” he stated. “We can be on an island. We can be on the moon or in the space station.”

That’s simple to image: The farms are staffed by a brand new breed of younger farmers who put on lab coats as an alternative of overalls, and choose computer systems to tractors.

Today, the greater than 2,300 farms rising hydroponic crops within the United States make up solely a sliver of the nation’s $5.2 billion fruit and vegetable market. But traders enamored of sensible agriculture are betting closely on them.

Lettuces at a Kalera vertical farm destined for nutrient-filled water start in small plugs of rising medium.Credit…Courtesy of Kalera

In 2020, $929 million poured into U.S. indoor-farming ventures, greater than double the investments in 2019, in line with PitchBook knowledge. Grocery chains and California’s greatest berry growers are partnering with vertical farms, too.

“There is no question we are reinventing farming, but what we are doing is reinventing the fresh-food supply chain,” stated Irving Fain, the founder and chief government of Bowery, which relies in Manhattan and has the indoor farm in New Jersey and one in Maryland, one other underneath building in Pennsylvania, and two analysis farms in New Jersey.

Mr. Fain stated his farms are 100 occasions as productive as conventional ones and use 95 % much less water. Other corporations declare they’ll develop as a lot meals on a single acre as a conventional farm can develop on 390.

Vertical farms may be constructed subsequent to city facilities, so lettuce, for instance, doesn’t have to sit down inside a truck for days because it makes its manner from California to the East Coast, dropping each high quality and dietary worth. Vegetables may be bred for taste slightly than storage and yield.

The new methods are designed to provide a sanitary crop, grown with out pesticides in hygienic buildings monitored by computer systems, so there may be little threat of contamination from micro organism like E. coli, which pressured giant remembers of romaine lettuce in 2019 and 2020.

Bowery, the biggest vertical-farm firm within the United States, is rising hydroponic greens which have attracted the eye of cooks.Credit…Brian Fraser for The New York Times

Still, many farmers and scientists stay unpersuaded. Mr. Chapman, of the Real Organic Project, served on a U.S. Department of Agriculture hydroponics job drive 5 years in the past, and is main an effort to get the company to cease permitting hydroponic farmers to certify their produce as natural. The very definition of natural farming, he and others say, rests on constructing wholesome soil. In May, the Center for Food Safety, an environmental advocacy group, led an enchantment of a federal court docket ruling that upheld the company’s coverage.

Although the dietary profile of hydroponic produce continues to enhance, nobody but is aware of what sort of long-term well being influence fruits and greens grown with out soil can have. No matter what number of vitamins indoor farmers put into the water, critics insist that indoor farms can by no means match the style and dietary worth, or present the environmental benefits, that come from the wedding of solar, a wholesome soil microbiome and plant biology discovered on well-run natural farms.

“What will the health outcomes be in two generations?” Mr. Chapman requested. “It’s a huge live experiment, and we are the rats.”

The divide between soil loyalists and ag-tech futurists is taking part in out on a way more intimate scale between two influential brothers: Dan and David Barber, who based and personal the natural farm Blue Hill and its eating places in Greenwich Village and at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

In 2018, David Barber created an funding fund to assist new meals tech corporations, together with Bowery. But Dan Barber, a chef whose 2014 e-book “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food” devotes a whole part to soil, believes that really scrumptious meals can come solely from the earth.

“I am not buying any of it,” Dan Barber stated of the hydroponic fever.

The chef Dan Barber, a soil loyalist, is skeptical of the claims made for hydroponic farms.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Trying to reinforce water with vitamins to imitate what soil does is just about not possible, he stated, partly as a result of nobody actually is aware of how the soil microbiome works.

“We know more about the stars and the sky than we do about soil,” he stated. “We don’t know a lot about nutrition, actually.”

There is a cultural value, too. For centuries, cuisines have been developed primarily based on what the land and the crops demanded, he stated. Regional Mexican diets constructed on corn and beans took place as a result of farmers realized that beans mounted nitrogen in soil, and corn used it to develop sturdy.

“The tech-farming revolution is turning this equation on its head,” Mr. Barber stated. It aids effectivity within the identify of feeding extra individuals, however divorces meals from nature.

His brother, David, had lengthy been skeptical of hydroponics, too. “Most of my career was about good soil leads to good agriculture and good systems and ultimately good flavor,” David Barber stated.

But the environmental benefits of next-generation hydroponic meals manufacturing can’t be ignored, he stated. Nor can the enhancements in style over earlier hydroponic produce. “They are combining outdoor and indoor thinking, and science and history, to create something special,” he stated. “There are not going to be many winners in this space, but it is going to be a part of our food system.”

At Bowery, “there is no question we are reinventing farming, but what we are doing is reinventing the fresh-food supply chain,” stated Irving Fain, its founder and chief government. Credit…Brian Fraser for The New York Times

Indoor farm corporations view their competitors as the massive, industrial growers that produce fruits and greens bred to face up to processing and delivery — not smaller farmers utilizing extra pure rising methods. The battle, they are saying, is towards monoculture, not farmers who preserve wholesome soil and feed their communities. Hydroponic farms can assist develop new and extra numerous crops, and scale back total pesticide use.

“The only thing we are trying to do is get as good as farmers were 100 years ago,” stated Mr. Malechuk, the hydroponic lettuce grower.

Indoor farming is a wager on the nation's agriculture, stated Jonathan Webb, the Kentucky-born founder and chief government of AppHarvest.

“The American farmer is already obsolete,” he stated, declaring that the United States imports 4 billion kilos of tomatoes from Mexico yearly. “Our hope is we can get farmers back on U.S. shelves.”

Even Mr. Colicchio, who led a marketing campaign towards genetically modified meals and has lengthy been a champion of small farmers, stated the 2 types of farming can coexist. “We’re going to need a lot of tools in the toolbox,” he stated.

Ouita Michel, a chef in Kentucky, likes AppHarvest as a result of the corporate is creating jobs and rising tomatoes she is joyful to make use of in her eating places.

But expertise, she stated, won’t ever trump the magic of soil. “Nothing will ever replace my summer Kentucky tomatoes.”

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