If you live in the U.S., the last time you ate a salad, the lettuce inside it almost certainly came from California or Arizona. But the geography of leafy greens is very slowly starting to change as the trend of indoor farming—growing greens in large warehouses using artificial light and automated technology—expands. The latest farm to open is in Baltimore. It’s the largest, so far, from the New York-based, tech-heavy startup Bowery.
The company, which just announced that it raised another $50 million from investors, grows what it previously called “post-organic” produce in sprawling warehouses (it no longer uses the phrase, but the greens are grown without any pesticides). It’s one of a handful of startups trying to make a dent in some of the challenges of traditional agriculture. The industry isn’t moving as quickly as some predicted. Aerofarms, for example, said in 2015 that it hoped to build 25 farms over the next five years; so far, it has two large farms, an R&D farm and a small farm at a school. The same year, FarmedHere said that it planned to expand to 18 farms but went out of business two years later. Boston-based Fresh Box Farms said in 2017 that it planned to expand to 25 farms in five years but still has only one farm. Plenty, a Silicon Valley-based indoor farming startup that has raised $226 million, has one farm.
Bowery, which launched in 2015, opened its first farm in New Jersey in 2017, followed by another farm at the same location, roughly 30 times larger, in 2018. The new farm in Baltimore is around 3.5 times larger than the last (the company won’t disclose specific square footage). The company is ramping up operations in Baltimore this week and planting crops, with the first sales to begin at local retailers early next year. Like others, the startup also hasn’t moved quite as quickly as it has suggested—last year, it said that it planned to open multiple farms in new cities by the end of 2019, though the Baltimore farm will be the only one to open this year—but it offers evidence that the field is continuing to grow. Another large indoor farm, from Gotham Greens, will also open in Baltimore late this year inside a former steel mill. In Pittsburgh, a robot-run farm from another startup called Fifth Season is scaling up in an industrial neighborhood.
“We’ve been really measured and thoughtful at Bowery in the way that we’ve scaled and grown the business, and that’s not just the farms themselves but the development around our technology . . . I think that really is rooted in the recognition that the problem that we’re solving and the opportunity that we’re focusing on is a large one, and ultimately, we’re running a marathon, not a sprint,” says Bowery CEO Irving Fain.
If the business model can succeed, it could help farming become more sustainable. “When you look at the footprint of agriculture globally, it’s the largest consumer of resources in the world by a quite a wide margin,” says Fain. The majority of the world’s water is used for agriculture—often in places like California that struggle with frequent drought and where droughts will increase with climate change. Indoor growing systems can shrink water use by more than 95%.
Because the crops grow in a pristine environment, they also don’t require any pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides. (Growing inside a controlled environment also eliminates the risk of contaminated produce, such as an E. coli outbreak in conventionally grown lettuce in 2018 that made 210 people sick and left five people dead.) Bowery estimates that its system is 100 times more productive than a traditional farm on the same amount of land. And while indoor farming uses a significant amount of energy for climate control and lighting, the technology is becoming more efficient. “I think you’re going to see us really fulfill our energy needs with more and more renewable energy over time,” he says.
Like others in the space, Bowery relies heavily on technology. The company uses a custom-built operating system to carefully monitor plants and automatically make changes to improve yield and quality. Cameras track plant growth. “That plant vision system is taking photos of our crops in real time,” Fain says. “It runs those photos through deep learning algorithms that we’ve developed. It both analyzes and understands what’s happening with the crops today but also predicts what will happen to the crops in the future. And then all that data runs through other machine learning algorithms, which essentially say, these are the adjustments and tweaks and changes that we want to make to this crop.” The software also manages farmers, making it possible, he says, to hire people who have no previous experience in growing food.
As the company expands, it can use the data it has already collected to improve each new farm. “In essence, what we’re doing is we’re building this distributed network of farms, and every new farm comes online with the benefit of all the prior farms that have come before it,” says Fain. “And then that farm itself also is now contributing data into that network and strengthening the network itself. What that means is better produce, more efficiency, new taste and flavors, and new varieties, and all those things are sort of translating from the learning that we’re getting through the Bowery operating system and the systems themselves.”
All of this, he says, can happen at a cost competitive with growing in the field. Right now, the company’s leafy greens sell through 100 retailers for around the same price as organically grown produce. Fain says that he expects the cost to eventually be at par with any produce. “When I started Bowery, one of the things that was really important to me was really ensuring that we could ultimately democratize access to high quality, fresh produce,” he says. “To get there, we had to be able to sell a product that was already competitive today . . . We’ve spent a lot of time really carefully and meticulously focusing on not only the way we run our farms but the systems inside of our farms, the automation, the technology and the software, and how that directly ties into the unit economics of the farms themselves. And so we can today be at or below field organic pricing with a very healthy economic model for our farms.”