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Growing Vertical

September 22, 2020
by Moe Issa

At the forefront of agricultural innovation, Bowery Farming grows Protected Produce at its state-of-the-art indoor farming facilities in Kearny, New Jersey and outside of Baltimore, Maryland. A newcomer to Brooklyn Fare markets, Bowery was launched in 2015 by CEO Irving Fain who believed that “technology and innovation could be a driving force behind re-imagining the food system for the better.”

The concept of turning industrial spaces into complex vertical farms protected from harsh external elements and managed by a fully automated system germinated quickly. Bowery’s proprietary farming system known as the BoweryOS uses artificial intelligence, such as robotics, machine learning, and computer vision, to farm; yielding high quality, nutrient rich foods distributed to communities in the New York City Metro area and Mid-Atlantic. 

A fully indoor, climate and culture-controlled hydroponic growing environment, Bowery Farming produces literally thousands of crop growing cycles per year without the use of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides. They are able to manage their farms at optimal growing conditions in a pristine environment year-round, leaving the end consumer to reap the benefits. No need to wash Bowery lettuce leaves or remove the grit off of cilantro as there isn’t any. This hydroponic, vertical growing style with no use of harmful chemicals ensures that every time you crack open a package of Bowery produce, you can be reassured that there has been minimal human contact, perhaps even more relevant now in the age of coronavirus.

What’s more, farming models like Bowery’s maximizes production and limits the damage caused by its carbon footprint. Vertical farming has a potential yield of over 100 times that of traditional farming and is less taxing on the environment. Additionally, Bowery Farming uses 95% less water than traditional farming as it only uses what the crops need; no more, no less. The proximity of the farms to the major metropolitan areas they service guarantees that the produce reaches markets faster and fresher, thereby cutting back on shipping long distances and spoilage. It also provides a consistent stream of crops year-round, despite environmental or socio-economic factors; all-the-more important in this day and age when the foundation of the world’s food supply chain has been threatened to its core. 

MacIsaac, who has a PhD in Plant Science, spent her twenty-year career working in the agricultural biotechnology field, most recently in digital agriculture that uses data to help farmers better manage their farms operationally leading to a higher-quality output. This segued nicely into what she does today with Bowery Farming. Having the background in plant science and having worked with big data has equipped her for the very technical job at Bowery Farming, as she explained recently via Zoom.

BF: Bowery’s style of farming is fully traceable. What does that mean?

SM: From the time the crop starts a life as a seed, we have a complete record of the experience that that crop had, where it was in our system. We track it through all of the processes that it goes through, from harvest to packing, and then once it’s delivered to the retail partner, we can trace that back. So for us, it gives us complete visibility on the full experience that that crop has had from an agricultural, processing, and handling perspective, who has handled it, and so on.

BF: What products do you grow?

SM: We grow lettuces, including Butterhead, Romaine, a Spring Blend and more, and we just have a new product that we’re launching which is really exciting called Crispy Leaf. It’s got a really lovely crunch, and it’s quite different than other lettuces that most people are familiar with. 

We have herbs: cilantro, parsley, and basil, and then we also have some products that have a really lovely flavor profile: arugula, bok choy, and kale, baby kale.

BF: Is there a growing season?

Well yes, I mean it is always summer at Bowery because our farms are indoor. We’re growing in protective culture that we have; we’re not limited to the external seasonality. We create the environment that’s optimal for growing and so we are constantly, constantly growing year-round. And we have literally thousands and thousands of crop cycles each year because of our ability to do that.

So, we’re not at the mercy of the outdoor temperature of the winter season. We can grow beautiful baby lettuce in January because we have the environment that’s actually summer for lettuce.

BF: About food safety, what does that mean to you? Your products don’t need washing, does that speak to the hydroponic growing?

SM: Yes, it’s speaks to the fact that we grow our crops in a pristine environment so there in a protected indoor environment where we are able to control all of the elements and also who has access to the crops; there is a very low risk of introducing any pests or anything that would cause an issue for the crop. Each farm is Safe Quality Food (SQF) certified - the highest level food safety standard in the industry.

I don’t know if you’ve had our cilantro? Usually you buy it and it’s a big bunch of cilantro. It’s almost a little bit gritty and it’s not all that palatable. Bowery Cilantro comes in a nice clamshell. It’s very clean, you can just take out what you need and use what you need. It’s really different than the traditional way cilantro is packaged and marketed.

BF: Our next question is on “protected produce.” You’re not labeled as organic, but instead you’re a protective produce. Is that the new term for organic?

SM: It’s the way we’re talking about our produce and highlighting the nature of our growing system and the benefits that it has for people who want to buy clean, healthy, nutritious produce. I think it’s not really a comparison between organic and protected culture, it’s really about what we can deliver as an indoor growing system and our protective system that is so fresh and clean and healthy and nutritious. That’s the way I prefer to think about it.

BF: What is an indoor growing system, actually?

SM: Well it’s a totally indoor system, so we grow with LED lights. We control the environment that the crop experiences, the nutrients that are delivered, and all of the things that it takes to grow a crop. We actually can control and deliver to the optimal settings we have.

BF: How about water use? You use less water with the indoor system, correct?

SM: Yes, we use 95% less water than a conventional production system and this is because of the way that we design our farms that we’re able to reuse our water and to provide the crops exactly what they need in their crop cycle.

BF: Is this type of farming conducive to cities in particular? Is this the future of farming?

SM: Yes, I think it’s definitely the wave of the future and a really important complement to traditional production systems because of the way we’re able to produce our products using less water, producing them year-round so that consumers have access to fresh and healthy food year-round. We’re not waiting for spring to see new lettuce and summer for strawberries, we are producing them year-round. 

I think cities are an attractive market. I mean, there’s a lot of people there, there’s a lot of people who are interested in nutritious and healthy food so it’s just a really awesome fit for the type of growing system and farms that we operate and consumer’s needs and wants.

BF: Agriculture biotechnology has been around, but you’re taking it to the next level, using less of a footprint, using less resources, and managing resources so you can have a higher quality output. Is that accurate?   

SM: Yes, producing food, whether you’re growing it out in the field in your traditional farm, or you’re doing it indoors, it really has the same inputs. You want to start with good cultivars, you want to give them the optimal environment, and you want to make decisions that protect the health of your crops and result in a high-yielding, high quality, tasty, nutritious crop. Now the difference is – there are differences obviously – but really fundamentally it’s the same. Plants have the same requirements whether you’re growing them indoors or out. We just do it differently.

BF: Any favorite products that you have?

SM: Well, that’s a tough one! I mean, I really like our Arugula. I think it’s got a really peppery distinct flavor profile. It’s really, really unique.