Inside The Vertical Farm Growing What It Calls “The World’s First Post-Organic” Produce

Without using any pesticides or chemicals, Bowery–a new vertical farming startup outside of New York City–delivers fresh leafy greens within one day of harvesting, with some help from agricultural AI.

Before leading people through the heavy metal doors and into the vertical farm Irving Fain has recently opened in a warehouse in Kearny, New Jersey, he asks visitors to take off their jewelry. He hands them a disposable jumpsuit and a hairnet to put on; bright blue sleeves must be slipped on over shoes. “It’s about protecting the integrity of the environment,” Fain says. Jewelry could fall off and into the beds of leafy greens; shoes and clothes could track in unknown germs.

For Bowery—the farm that Fain, a former marketing entrepreneur, first conceived of two years ago—contamination is a particular concern. Bowery is growing what it calls “the world’s first post-organic produce,” meaning that all of the leafy greens in the warehouse—which range from kale to Thai basil to wasabi arugula—are grown completely without pesticides, and completely under the control of a comprehensive, proprietary operating system that oversees the entire growing process. “We fully own our process from seed to store,” Fain says–the “post-organic” designation derives from the fact that the founders view Bowery’s farming and tech integration as the next frontier in agriculture. Though the startup doesn’t release exact capacity or operating cost figures, Bowery estimates that it is 100 times more productive on the same plot of land than traditional farms.

Organic produce has grown into a $43.3 billion industry in the U.S., and its popularity is largely driven by two beliefs: that organic food is healthier, and that it’s grown without pesticides. The former is not necessarily true; the USDA organic certification refers to growing methods, not nutritional value. But the growing methods remain the source of some confusion. One survey found that 95% of consumers believe organic produce is grown completely without pesticides. That is definitely not true: Large-scale organic farms make liberal use of pesticides—the pesticides themselves just have to be organic, too. (The USDA maintains a list of synthetic substances like ethanol and chlorine dioxide allowed for the use in organic crop production, provided that “the use of such substances do not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water.”)

Bowery, like many other vertical farms (like one that also recently opened in New Jersey) bypasses the use of chemicals entirely. Inside the warehouse, greens are grown in vertical columns stacked five high; LED lights deliver a full spectrum of light mimicking the sun, and because the water is delivered efficiently and recycled, Bowery requires 95% less water than traditional agriculture. Because the environment has to be carefully controlled to minimize threats of food-borne illnesses, Bowery complies with the highest standards of food safety protocols, including Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, which ensures safety at every step of the growing and delivery process.

“It doesn’t take much to see that agriculture is at the epicenter of so many issues facing the world today,” Fain tells Co.Exist. Around 70% of the world’s water supply goes to agriculture, and on top of the fact that nearly 11% of the world’s population struggles with access to food, we’ll likely need 50% to 70% more food to feed the 9.5 billion people estimated to be on the planet by 2050. Most of that population growth will happen in cities, and Fain says he was drawn to figuring out how to provide fresh food to urban environments in a way that’s efficient and sustainable. With his two cofounders David Golden and Brian Falther, who also have experience in the business and tech worlds, they “dove in and approached the issue from the standpoint of: What’s the best technology we can use to solve this problem?” Fain says.

Indoor and vertical farming are not new concepts—a robot-run indoor farm in Kyoto, Japan, that recently opened will produce around 10 million heads of lettuce per year, and a warehouse in Alaska houses a vertical farm that delivers leafy greens to a region that struggles with access to fresh produce. But Bowery, Fain says, is taking it a step further with its proprietary technology, developed specifically to support the venture. Called FarmOS, the fully integrated technology system uses machine learning and vision to understand and respond to all the variables that go into how the plants are grown. The sensors installed all around the farm track the optimal levels of light and nutrients for each variety of produce, which can be adjusted to effect things like taste and flavor (Fain says that the way the system is manipulated can ramp up or diminish the wasabi-like kick of a certain type of arugula grown in the farm).

FarmOS also detects when plants are ready to be harvested—something Fain says that traditional farmers tend to determined by eyeballing, which is “a hard method to scale.” By tracking the growth of plants 24/7 and sending data back into the operating system, FarmOS learns the optimal point of harvest for each crop. The system flags when each plant has reached its peak, and stores what it has learned about optimal light and nutrients for the next round of growing. Once Bowery produce is harvested, it’s delivered out within one day and travels no more than 10 miles (for traditional produce, delivery can take weeks). Since the farm started producing last summer, it has delivered produce to a handful of New York City area restaurants, among them Tom Colicchio’s Craft and Fowler & Wells, and Foragers, a market specializing in high-quality, local produce. At the beginning of March, Bowery will start selling at local Whole Foods. A box of Bowery greens will retail for $3.49–comparable to a similarly sized box of organic greens but more expensive than a bag. (It’s cheaper, though, than some of Whole Foods’ pricier leafy green offerings, which push $6 per box.)

To date, Bowery has raised $7.5 million; First Round Capital provided the first round of seed funding, and a variety of food-industry professionals, from Blue Apron CEO Matt Salzberg to Plated chairman Sally Robling, are on board as angel investors. Though the Bowery venture is just getting off the ground, Fain sees a lot of potential for his model to do a great deal of good. The efficiency of Bowery’s technology enables the startup to sell produce at prices comparable to traditionally grown crops, and Fain hopes to be able to drive the prices down further as the company grows. He also says that he and his founders are looking into developing a charitable arm to the startup—in New York City, where more than 16% of residents are food insecure and lack access to good-quality produce, Bowery could fill a real need.

For now, Fain is already at work on another Bowery farm in the New York City area, but he says there’s no stopping how this model could expand to serve a wider range of communities. “That’s one of the beauties of this place,” Fain says of the Kearny outpost. “This was just a completely empty warehouse, and now it’s a fully functioning farm. There’s no shortage of unused industrial space across the world that could be put to similar use.”