- Bowery Farming uses tech to build indoor vertical farms growing everything from arugula to lettuce.
- The startup is opening a new R&D Center to develop seeds designed for indoor vertical farming.
- A single farm saves up to 20 million gallons of water a year, which could help drought-prone states.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The menu for a recent virtual lunch event hosted by Bowery Farming read like a fine-dining restaurant experience: Head on Alabama prawn salad with lemon vinaigrette served on top of sorrel, a spinach-looking herb with a lemony tang.
Chef Tom Colicchio, also an investor in the startup, used ingredients – like sorrel, lettuce and Thai basil – grown at one of Bowery Farming’s indoor farms to prepare the lunch. The startup uses technology to build indoor vertical farms that can grow everything from arugula to strawberries.
Founded in 2015, Bowery grows crops in warehouse-scale across several indoor farms — three located in Kearny, New Jersey, and one in Nottingham, Maryland. In December, the company announced a fifth indoor farm in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday, Bowery announced the opening of Farm X, an R&D facility for plant science and research development. Located adjacent to Bowery’s first commercial farm in New Jersey, Farm X will continue to advance its R&D on new product offerings like strawberries, root vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, and more. Through Farm X, Bowery will establish the industry’s first on-site breeding program, developing seeds specifically designed for indoor vertical farming.
Based in New York City, Bowery has raised more than $172.5 million from Temasek, GV, General Catalyst, GGV Capital, First Round Capital, former Amazon executive Jeff Wilke, and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. Aside from Colicchio, other well-known restaurateurs like José Andres and David Barber of Blue Hill are also investors.
“Bowery is showing local, smart farming at scale can be a more sustainable model for the future of agriculture,” Hans Tung, Managing Partner at GGV Capital, tells Insider.
Bowery currently sells 13 varieties of leafy greens and herbs like butterhead, baby kale, and arugula in stores such as Walmart, Whole Foods, and Albertsons.
Other players in the indoor farming space include Plenty, which raised $140 million in new funding to build more vertical farms in the U.S. backed by SoftBank’s Vision Fund. And beyond the US, Berlin-based Infarm closed a $100 million Series B in September. AppHarvest, which also operates indoor farms, went public after completing a $1 billion SPAC deal in February.
Food as a “global-scale problem”
As the global population continues to grow, and climate change increasingly threatens the world’s food supply, the ability to grow food will become a “global-scale problem,” Irving Fain, CEO of Bowery Farming, said during the virtual lunch. The world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, according to the United Nations, and Fain said he expects a large majority of the population to be living in and around cities.
“So the question of how can you get fresh food more efficiently and more sustainably was something that I became obsessed with,” he said.
At the virtual lunch, Fain worked the
room like a modern-day farmer version of Willy Wonka, encouraging reporters to taste lettuce, Thai basil, and sorrel. “Eat it raw,” he said, to explore the “vibrancy” and “explosiveness” of the flavors.
“We grow more than twice as fast as the field, we get more crop cycles than the field, so we end up more than 100%+ more productive per square foot of farmland and we use a small fraction of water compared to traditional agriculture,” he added, pointing out that his farm saves on average 20 million gallons of water than traditional outdoor farming.
One particular water-saving technology that Fain’s team built, called BoweryOS, allows their farmers to understand the precise amount of water their plants need, and when they need to be watered. Bowery’s farms are also designed to recapture water and recirculate that water, pesticide and pollutant-free.
The ability to cut back on water usage will be important for states like California. On Monday, Governor Gavin Newsome expanded a drought emergency covering about 30% of the state’s population, according to CNN.
“The pandemic and climate change have laid bare the challenges we have in our agriculture supply chains, making it difficult to access food at times,” Tensie Whelan, a professor at NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, tells Insider. “In California, as climate change creates more extreme weather and as we see ongoing drought, vertical farming enables continued production of vegetables without significant water use.”
Regarding climate change, Fain said he’s paying close attention to some of the legislation coming out of Washington DC, specifically the infrastructure bill where he sees “a lot of areas where we intersect with the priorities of this administration.”
However, he paints a grim picture of what could become a reality if climate change worsens over time, forcing consumers to pay more for groceries.
“Water in California is obviously a huge challenge, and agriculture is a huge consumer of that water and that water is not necessarily priced into the products that we buy today,” he said. “It will become a tricky question if that becomes priced into it because so much disposable income goes into food today, and that would have a broad economic impact.”
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