Kale: great for your health, not so great for the tastebuds. Sometimes I wonder if people eat it because they actually like the taste or because it’s so trendy.
That issue may soon become irrelevant, however, thanks a company called Bowery, which is using artificial intelligence (AI) to tweak crops’ color, texture, and even taste.
Billing itself as “The Modern Farming Company,” the New Jersey-based indoor-farming startup will soon open a second facility it says will be the most technologically sophisticated in the world. Sounds like a brazen claim, until you look at what Bowery actually has cooking, er, farming, at its forthcoming facility.
Bowery’s “brains” are found in its propriety system called FarmOS. Using vision systems and machine learning, FarmOS monitors the crops 24/7, collecting data about water flow, light levels, temperature, and humidity. Bowery growers can then use the data to make adjustments to the environment, which will impact color, texture, and taste. The system also alerts growers when plants are ready for harvest.
All of those elements and more roll up into what Bowery founder Irving Fain recently called “post-organic produce”—Bowery commands the entire process of raising produce, from seed to store, and grows crops in a fully controlled environment that doesn’t have to rely on chemicals, pesticide, or human intuition to ensure quality of crops. Sure, the name’s a little much, but the concept grows more promising each year, thanks to factors like cheaper LED lighting, better data analytics, and concepts like vertical farming, which is predicted to be worth $13 billion by 2024.
And while they’re not all using the “post-organic” label, there are plenty of others exploring the possibilities of farming in fully controlled, indoor environments.
Also in New Jersey, AeroFarms has a 70,000-square-foot facility, where it grows bok choi, arugula, watercress, and other greens, including kale. The company closed a $40 million Series D funding round at the end of 2017, bringing in IKEA Group and Momofuku’s David Chang as additional backers.
Meanwhile, indoor farming startups abound in Alaska, where growing produce outside is pretty much impossible in the depths of winter and anything shipped is often close to spoiled upon delivery. Alaska Natural Organics operates a 5,000-square-foot farm that grows butter lettuce and basil. Vertical Harvest Hydroponics designs systems that can be grown inside shipping containers and distributed across the state, including hard-to-reach areas. Both companies are based in Anchorage.
And in Kyoto, Japan, a “vegetable factory” is run by robots and grows 30,000 heads of lettuce per day. The company, Spread, says that it recycles 98 percent of its water and, because the factory is sealed, doesn’t have to rely on pesticides or chemicals.
What sets Bowery somewhat apart—for now, at least—is that it has gone beyond simply monitoring water supply and temperature with its ability to adjust things like taste, texture, and even blemishes on produce. With the U.S. alone throwing out about 50 percent of produce grown annually, a proprietary system like Bowery’s could seriously be leading the way in terms of indoor farming’s impact on overall agriculture.