When his work as a plumbing and air conditioning contractor sent Sam Stoltzfus into greenhouses, the Lancaster County man who had never grown his own food decided he wanted a greenhouse of his own.
So, in 2009, he started an aquaponics business growing fish and plants. The following year, Stoltzfus learned about a company called Tower Garden that created vertical, aeroponic growing systems, and went to work for them.
In 2012, he created his own system, and joined forces with Frank Fendler to create Aero Development Corp., based in Gap, Salisbury Township, which offers a variety of sustainable aeroponic growing systems for everyone from hobbyists to commercial enterprises.
“We do anything from classroom setups to complete turnkey growing units and greenhouses,” Stoltzfus said.
Many people are familiar with hydroponics — a way of growing plants in water rather than soil — but Stoltzfus was intrigued by how aeroponics could bring larger growing operations into smaller spaces, requiring less energy, labor and cost.
“If you want to grow 608 plants in a horizontal hydroponic system, you would need 700 square feet of floor space,” he said. “We can do the same thing in our vertical aeroponic system using just 125 square feet.”
Hollow columns dispense nutrient-rich water through a cap at the top of the unit to grow cups staggered on the sides of the columns. Seeds placed in beds of rockwool sprout and develop roots that can expand unhindered into the center of the column, while the produce grows outward.
“We have it down almost to the point where you don’t need to be a grower or have a green thumb to grow bountiful food crops,” he said. The systems aren’t designed to support root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots — or larger plants such as sweet corn — but they can produce nearly anything else you’d want to put in a backyard herb or vegetable garden.
“If it’s a larger plant, you would have to stake or tie it up so it can crawl,” Stoltzfus added.
Because the systems require only a good source of natural light, they can be used nearly anywhere and all year round. They also recycle nutrients from a reservoir tank and conserve water. His customers range from elementary schools and senior living communities to larger commercial operations in New Jersey, Canada and Africa.
“The beautiful part is that the residential units don’t require any tools to put it together and the commercial units are packaged in a way where we can send them overseas and they include everything the customer needs to put them together,” Stoltzfus said.
Areo Development Corp. has also partnered with Messiah College in Grantham, Cumberland County, to bring students to work for the company as interns, developing written literature and engineering plastic grow cups for the systems.
“We see the timing as right for this with where we are environmentally,” Stoltzfus said, noting that aeroponic gardening doesn’t depend on weather patterns or soil quality, so it can be more easily controlled. “It is a way to grow food very quickly and efficiently, and it works. We see the future of this as unlimited.”