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Growing in a farm near you: Bowery’s quest to solve the impending food crisis

By    |   April 10, 2018, 3:55 am EDT

The United Nations predicts the global population to surpass 9 billion by 2050 with urban areas accommodating 66 percent of them. The world faces large scale food security concerns, loss of arable land, and reduced access to fresh water fuelled by global warming. Global supply of grain is currently concentrated among a handful of producer regions. Chatham House, the international policy institute in London, warns that transport routes of global strategic importance for international food trade are extremely vulnerable to disruptive hazards that threaten to delay or choke critical food shipments.

In 2010, when droughts wiped out millions of acres of wheat in Russia, the country imposed a ban on exports. North Africa and the Middle East that are highly dependent on food imports from Russia, witnessed extreme food shortage and price inflation. So, when a Tunisia street vendor self-immolated, it triggered off a spate of uprisings in the region, leading to massive political, social, and economic consequences. This was the Arab Spring. Rob Bailey, research director at Chatham House, believes it highly likely that similar instances could lead to hoarding by countries, giving rise to an international ‘Hunger Games’.

Closer home, in 2017, a warmer-than-usual growing season in Southern California and Arizona, followed by higher-than-normal rains in California’s Salinas Valley led to a delay and disruption of the planting season. This lead to a shortage of leafy vegetables that affected availability and jacked up prices in Chicago. Like a company we had previously covered, FoodMaven, Bowery Farming is one of the companies trying to solve such problems. Bowery applies robotics, machine learning, and predictive analysis to grow produce indoors, closer to communities, and in a sustainable manner. Inside a giant warehouse in Kearny, New Jersey, baby kale, butterhead, basil, and wasabi arugula grow in nutrient-rich water beds stacked in ceiling-to-floor stacks of trays. LEDs mimic a spectrum of natural lighting, suitable for these crops. The water requirement is 95% less compared to traditional farming, owing to efficient use, and recycling. Automated machines connected to the water beds move and water these plants, replacing human effort. Bowery estimates to be able to grow 100 times more produce per square foot than an average industrial farm.

The key to the efficiency and precision is its proprietary operating system, BoweryOS. The integrated technology platform constantly learns about and responds to all variables involved in growing the plants. Sensors installed around the farm track light and nutrients for each variety of plant or crop, allowing adjustments to control taste, texture, colour, flavour, and even yield. Finally, the software also detects and flags it when crops are ready to be harvested. One of Bowery’s unique features that separates it from other players in this space is the lack of commitment to a single growing set-up. Multiple configurations within the farm are streamlined and controlled by the monitoring and control system of BoweryOS. As Bowery’s co-founder and CEO, Irving Fain, shares, “We are a tech company that is thinking about the future of food.”

Bowery’s Vertical farm (Photo: Bowery Farming website)

There is rising environmental concern over contribution of food transport to carbon footprint. There is also a fear of use of excessive pesticides, and distrust over chemically-treated crops. Owing to a wide-spread belief that organic produce is ecologically and ethically ‘better’ because it is completely chemical- and pesticide-free the segment has grown into a $43.4 Billion industry in the US alone. But often organic farms make liberal use of pesticides. As long as the pesticides themselves are organic (e.g. ethanol, chlorine dioxide) and do not contaminate the crops, soil, or water, the produce qualifies as ‘organic’.

With an increasing suspicion of the interpretation of ‘organic’, and the adherence to standards by farmers attempting to earn a premium by selling produce thus labelled, Congress has been weighing legislation that would increase the funding to better track and monitor products. But, a number of start-ups are attempting to side-step these problems by operating in the space of no chemicals or pesticides, and strongly controlling the conditions of crop growth, independent of the vagaries of weather, or conditions of local soil. Freight Farms, for example, is a Boston-based start-up taking refrigerated shipping containers and re-purposing them as indoor hydroponic gardens. AeroFarms, a Newark-based start-up operates what is touted as the world’s largest vertical farm. Elon Musk’s brother, Kimbal Musk, launched Square Roots, an urban farming incubation program, in Brooklyn, New York.

Bowery owns its seed-to-store process to grow what it calls ‘post-organic greens’. It has coined this term to refer to produce grown unexposed to any chemicals or pesticides. Because of its proximity to the point of consumption, there aren’t many middlemen in the distribution value chain, helping weed out inefficiencies and leakages, thereby keeping costs, and consequently price, low. With its existing set up, Bowery currently sells its produce at Whole Foods, and Foragers Market in the tri-state area; and supplies to Craft and Temple Court restaurants in the same area. It is now in the process of building a second facility that it claims will be the world’s most technologically sophisticated indoor farm. It expects to grow 30 times more produce than its current indoor farm.

Patrons enjoying a Bowery-produce cooked meal at Tom Colicchio’s restaurant (Photo: Bowery Farming blog)

The company initially raised $7.5 million from investors including First Round Capital, Box Group, Lerer Hippeau Ventures, SV Angel, Homebrew, Flybridge, Red Swan, RRE, and Urban.us; and angel investors including Top Chef judge and celebrity chef, Tom Colicchio, Blue Apron founder-CEO, Matt Salzberg, chairman of Plated, Sally Robling, and Dig Inn founder-CEO, Adam Eskin. They recently raised about $20 million in Series-A funding in a round co-led by General Catalyst, GGV Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures) and First Round Capital. This has brought the total funding with about 19 investors and over three rounds, to about $31 million. The first priority with the new funds will be on recruiting for engineering, sales, and business development roles.

In November last year, The National Organic Standards Board voted on a divisive issue—should crops grown without soil be certified as organic. While the board voted yes, Fain says that Bowery was neither involved in the conversation nor focused on the organic certification. It’s the next evolution, he explains. Organic still allows for pesticides while Bowery pursues a better product, a better way of growing, and in a way that is less destructive for the earth. “We are using technology to grow the purest food possible.”

 

Editor’s note: Bowery informed us that the name of the software system has now been changed from FarmOS to BoweryOS. The article has been edited to reflect the same.

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