Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Marc Oshima of AeroFarms.
Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.
When he launched Newark, NJ-based AeroFarms with partners David Rosenberg and Ed Harwood, Marc Oshima was beginning more than a business — he was beginning a mission to bring produce to the people so they could understand their relationship to the food they eat. In the greatest sense, the mission is to transform agriculture by building and operating environmentally responsible farms worldwide, enabling local production at scale and nourishing communities with safe, nutritious and delicious food.
Oshima, the company’s chief marketing officer, often acts as the face of the business and mission, said Alina Zolotareva, AeroFarms marketing director. Partner David Rosenberg, chief executive officer, functions in a business and finance role; Ed Harwood, chief science officer, is the scientific and technical champion, the originator of the technology behind AeroFarms.
“Marc is very much the food guy,” Zolotareva says.
With his background in food, supermarkets and branding, Oshima is also the storyteller. “He has the ability to take a giant idea and synthesize it to something appealing to consumers.”
AeroFarms describes itself as a mission-driven company and leader in the indoor vertical farming segment. By championing that approach to growing leafy vegetables and other crops, it has a vision of transforming agriculture. In his role, Oshima is a passionate advocate of innovation in agriculture and a champion of the global produce industry.
AeroFarms came on the scene in 2004 as an indoor vertical farming pioneer. Although it now operates a commercial farm, the company also has initiated projects to teach and spread an understanding of agriculture to the young and old alike.
AeroFarms has a smaller scale vertical farm tended by the students at the Philips Academy Charter School in Newark. AeroFarms has also launched grassroots initiatives in the Garden State that will establish 10 vertical farms in senior centers, schools, public housing complexes and municipal buildings.
Oshima touts what AeroFarms can bring to agriculture — more than 390 times greater productivity per square foot on an annualized basis versus traditional field farming, while using 95% less water and no pesticides. Raising crops in a controlled growing environment also allows for higher food safety standards.
The flip side of AeroFarms’ activities comes from the perspective of eating. The company is engaged in an effort to provide better food from both a taste and wellness perspective. Oshima says that growing closer to use, controlling conditions and carefully developing crops — an effort that has moved beyond greens into a variety of other commodities — lets AeroFarms to deliver something consumers often haven’t experienced: full and uncompromised flavor.
“What stands out about Marc’s contribution is his asking ‘how do we always to keep customers first and grow the best greens possible for the customer and the planet,’” says Emily Gee, AeroFarms marketing manager. “He helps keep that at the heart of the organization.”
Oshima has dedicated most of his 30-year professional career to the food and produce industries, with a particular dedication to improving food systems. He headed up marketing for The Food Emporium, a supermarket chain operating in and around the New York City metropolitan area, and Citarella Gourmet Markets. He coordinated numerous food events, including partnerships with the James Beard Foundation, Museum of Food & Drink, Slow Food, City Harvest and Le Fooding.
Oshima serves on the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) board of directors and has been a regular speaker at its events, most recently as a featured member in its “Rooting for You” campaign. He is an active member of the United Fresh Marketing and Merchandising Council and sits on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Romaine Advisory Task Force. In addition, Oshima is vice chair for the CEA (controlled environment agriculture) Food Safety Coalition, a newly formed nonprofit that partners with FDA and industry to establish higher level food safety standards.
Ultimately, Oshima’s priority is taking what AeroFarms has learned and taking it to a broader scale, sharing research and working with land grant universities such as Rutgers and Cornell to change the conditions under which agriculture operates. The company also has engaged in partnerships with such organizations as the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research.
“The work we’re doing, working with food and agricultural research, is an important part now,” Oshima says. “It’s not just about urban or vertical farming, but how to advance the overall produce industry.”
Oshima says AeroFarms and its founders have been able to take what once was an aspiration and turn it into a reality that can continue to evolve and grow. “This is still a relatively new industry,” he says. “While we’re widely considered the leader, there’s a lot more to do.”
And so the mission lives on.