At one point in the not-so-distant past, vertical farming’s role in our future agricultural system was far from certain. Growing leafy greens in warehouse-like environments controlled by tech seemed like a compelling business, but one that had yet to prove itself either economically or as an important source of food for a growing world population.
That, at least, was a common sentiment Irving Fain, CEO and founder of Bowery, met with when he started his vertical farming company five years ago. “There was a bit of skepticism around it,” he told me over a call recently, suggesting that five years ago, there were a lot more “ifs” than “whens” in terms of vertical farming’s future.
Fain, Bowery, and the entire vertical farming industry get a much warmer reception nowadays. Investment dollars are pouring into the space. Around the world, companies, scientists, and food producers are using the method to not just supply upscale grocery stores with greens but experiment with breeds of produce, feed underserved populations, and grow food in non-arable regions. As Fain suggested when we spoke, the last 12 months seem to have turned those “ifs” into definite “whens.”
Bowery’s last 12 months also illustrate this change. Fain said that Bowery went from under 100 retail locations about a year ago to nearly 700 right now, and will be in more than 1,000 “in the coming months.” Its produce is in a number of food retailers around the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, including Whole Foods Market, Giant Food, Stop & Shop, Walmart, and Weis Markets. And in 2020, the company experienced “more than 4x growth” with e-commerce partners.
While the pandemic is responsible for some of this popularity, Fain insists it is not the only reason for the eventful year. “It’s definitely bigger than the pandemic,” he said. “What you’re seeing is a food system that’s evolving and [people have a desire] to see transparency and traceability in the food system.” These, he says, are issues the traditional food supply chain isn’t really able to address right now, hence the opportunity for companies like Bowery, which effectively cut multiple steps out of the supply chain.
Bowery grows its greens (lettuces, herbs, and some custom blends) inside industrial spaces where crops are stacked vertically in trays and fed nutrients and water via a hydroponic system. Technology controls all elements of the farm, from the temperature inside to how much light each plants get. The company currently operates two farms, one in New Jersey and the other in Maryland. A third is planned for Pennsylvania.
Technology, in particular, is something Bowery has big plans for. On top of a retail expansion, Bowery also added some notable personnel to its staff, including Injong Rhee, formerly the Internet of Things VP at Google as well a chief technologist at Samsung. Having such technology chops onboard will be vital in order for Bowery to realize many of its ambitions around advanced automation, which has the potential to optimize many parts of the seed-to-store process for vertically grown greens.
For example, Bowery’s farms are equipped with sensors and cameras that are constantly collecting data — “billions” of points, according to the company — that can be used to not just observe the current state of plant health but also predict the most optimal growing conditions for each crop. Elements like temperature, humidity levels, nutrient levels, and light intensity can all be adjusted, via the BoweryOS software, to create those optimal conditions. The end result is more consistent crop production, better yields, more flavorful food, and, ideally, a better nutritional profile for the greens compared to what conventional produce offers.
The system can also, through automation and AI, detect problems with plants. In a recent interview with Venture Beat, Bowery Chief Science Officer Henry Sztul used the example of butterhead lettuce yellowing at the edges during growth. Bowery’s system is technologically advanced enough at this point that it is starting to understand the conditions that create those yellowing edges. That foreknowledge, in turn, will allow growers to adjust the crop “recipe” (see above mixture of lights, temperature, etc.) to avoid the problem.
It took Bowery years to get to this point in terms of what its technology is capable of doing. “The system [for] indoor farming that you choose has a direct impact on the crops you’ll be able to grow, on the margins you’ll be able to generate, and on the return profile of the business itself,” said Fain. “And so being incredibly intentional and thoughtful about what technology you use is something we spent a lot of time on because it has an extraordinarily important economic impact.”
On a less technically complex note, controlled ag from Bowery and others also goes some way towards reinventing the supply food chain. Rather than greens being harvested in, say, Mexico and shipped via a complex distribution process all the way to Baltimore, they are packaged up at the farm and distributed to nearby retailers, usually those within a day’s drive “It is much more sustainable. It is much more efficient, and it’s more reliable, and those things have been important to consumers long before COVID,” said Fain.
Bowery will continue to innovate on both the technology and supply side of its business, as well as with the food itself. The company just launched a new specialty product line that will experiment with different flavors of greens and change frequently.
In terms of tech, Bowery’s latest farm, currently being built in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, will incorporate even more automation than the company’s two existing farms. That location is slated to open later in 2021. When it does, Bowery will be capable of serving nearly 50 million people within a 200-mile radius.
The company hopes to expand its geographic reach much wider some day, building farms near most major U.S. cities and beyond. Given the increased confidence in the vertical farming sector as a whole, now looks to be the optimal time to move towards those ambitions.