Bowery’s automated indoor farm is growing fast

Around two years ago, the then 10-person team of Bowery, an indoor farming startup, started growing a small array of leafy greens out of what was once a shipbuilding yard in Kearny, New Jersey. Undeterred by the rather harsh post-industrial environment, the Bowery team was just looking for somewhere to set up that had a lot of space. After all, their farming system is more about the tech than it is the soil and the water and the things you might generally associate with farming. By growing produce in trays, stacked high in rooms whose temperature, lighting, and humidity is tightly controlled by a proprietary operating system, Bowery’s farming requires no soil, and instead delivers nutrients to its array of leafy greens via a hydroponic system that uses 95% less water than traditional agriculture.

Bowery certainly doesn’t look like a farm, but that, to CEO Irving Fain, is the point. “We’re excited about being able to move into these abandoned spaces in cities and create new jobs and industry,” he says. In Kearny, that’s exactly what Bowery is doing: On September 24, the startup officially unveiled its second, larger farm (the company does not disclose square footage) in a new building on the same industrial complex, which was built in 2017 as part of a larger revitalization effort in Kearny. In terms of output, the new farm is about 30 times more productive, and the startup has greatly diversified its crop output, adding bok choy, cilantro, and parsley to its original kale, spinach, and basil offerings. The startup is also expanding its distribution: It will continue selling through Whole Foods, as it already has been (at a price comparable to most of the retailer’s other greens) and also be featured on menus at Sweetgreen and Dig Inn throughout the Northeast.

[Photo: Bowery]

For an indoor farming company, this type of speedy growth is now not unprecedented–AeroFarms, another New Jersey-based indoor farming company, is also rapidly expanding–but it is a sign that perhaps, the industry is beginning to iron out the kinks that initially called into question whether it was a model that was cut out for success. Balancing the development of new technology and the associated costs along with the pressures to actually produce significant quantities of edible vegetables often proved challenging and not financially viable. Stories like that of PodPonics, an indoor farming venture that had to fold when it couldn’t raise the capital necessary to scale, often tend to dominate the narrative around the model.

[Photo: Bowery]

But while Bowery is, as Fain says, focused on its mission of upping the local supply of fresh produce grown without pesticides, it’s taking a decidedly tech-centric approach to doing so–which may be fueling its success. Before launching its second farm, Bowery raised a round of $20 million in funding from Google Ventures and General Catalyst, among others, and brought in Brian Donato, who previously managed Amazon’s automated fulfillment centers, to help build it out as the SVP of operations.

In contrast to other indoor farming startups like FreshBox, which is less concerned with building its own tech system and more focused on using whatever systems will produce the greatest yield, Bowery is all about the tech. Its automated system that manages and controls the whole farm–called BoweryOS–is entirely proprietary. In the original farm, workers still help move trays of produce, and harvest the crops when their ready, but in the sprawling new facility, humans barely need to interact with the growing plants, because the system of sensors and cameras monitors the plants and controls how much water, light, and nutrients they receive.

[Photo: Bowery]

Unlike the original farm, where all the produce was grown in one room, the new facility has multiple growing rooms. “We can essentially create different climates room by room,” Fain says. This is especially beneficial for growing a broader range of greens: Crops like cilantro grow best in hot, dry climates, while kale and bok choy thrive in cooler, wetter environments, and Bowery can now create those different climates in its growing rooms. With the upgrades to the operating system, the “farmers” at the new Bowery farm walk around with tablets, mostly in the processing area, checking to ensure that the crops are growing according to plan, but mostly focusing on post-harvest work: quality control, sorting, and packaging.

In that way, Fain says, Bowery is trying to fulfill a tech-world promise of bringing a new type of job to areas, like Kearny, still reeling from the collapse of previous industry. “We don’t require a labor force that has experience in agriculture, or really any at all,” Fain says. “We can move into a new city and essentially hire anyone, and teach them how to read the system.” Bowery decided to open its second farm in the New York-New Jersey area because its first, smaller farm couldn’t tap as much into the local labor market as they wished. They’ve now grown the team from 10 people to over 60, and plan to keep expanding as the new farm continues to ramp up operations. And starting next year, Fain says, they’ll begin eying expansion to other cities.

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