When Irving Fain started Bowery Farms he had a dream; to provide the world with healthy, fresh, pesticide-free greens to consumers via an indoor vertical farm. That dream is now a reality. Since my first interview with him in 2018, Bowery Farms has expanded its farming locations to include Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and is now being sold in over 650 stores nationwide.
Admittedly, when I hear the words the Bowery, it conjures an image of flop houses, back alley bars, and dangerous derelicts—a vespiary of seedy activity. I certainly don’t think of farming. Well, I didn’t use to. Live and learn.
The Bowery of New York has an infamous and storied past. This notorious district of southern Manhattan in New York City was synonymous with destitution and debauchery in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rewind to an earlier time, however, and you’ll find rich farmland being cultivated by Dutch farmers beginning in the 17th century. During that period of history, that fertile expanse of land was called the Bouwerij, meaning farm, and the landscape was dotted with a great many of them.
“Those Bowerijs are what fed the city and served as the inspiration for the creation of Bowery Farming and growing food for a better future.” –Irving Fain
Fast forward to the present day where an indoor hydroponics farm of the future has picked up the torch of those original Dutch groundbreakers and in an act of homage to their pioneering spirit, has adopted the Bowery name and their passion for farming, 21st-century style. I’m certain the original Dutch farmers would agree, dat is goed.
Bowery Farming in Kearny, New Jersey, is not only reshaping that old, negative image of the Bowery, but it is also changing the agricultural paradigm to reflect a more realistic approach to growing enough healthy food to feed a hungry and ever-increasing population. This forward-looking hydroponic smart-farm is a wonder-world of proprietary technology and a living illustration of the future of farming.
Within its closely guarded walls work an array of sleepless sensors, mini monitors, and all-seeing cameras that watch over and control every aspect of every plant throughout the growing process. The greens produced at this farming facility are setting a new standard of excellence in taste and nutrition. At the same time, secret technology works to reduce the facility’s environmental impact through advanced farming practices.
The Bowery website states their “post-organic produce” is the next evolution in farming. After interviewing Bowery’s Co-Founder and CEO, Irving Fain, this is to be believed.
Irving Fain is an innovative renaissance man of respectable note in both the digital and financial world and is now turning his enterprising eye toward agriculture. Irving is the visionary behind Bowery Farming, a high-tech hydroponics smart farm that grows greens of the highest quality and supplies them to local markets and restaurants within 24 hours of harvest. He is on a mission to help feed a world that conventional agricultural practices simply cannot.
For a bit of background, it will be more efficient to merely bullet-point a few of his impressive accomplishments.
Suffice it to say, Irving Fain is one brilliant and busy entrepreneur, yet, gracious enough to grant this interview.
First question: Please tell me about the Bowery facility. How large an area does it cover and what do you grow there?
IF: While we don’t share information about size or output, we’re expanding quickly. Our next farm, which opens this summer, will produce 30x more than our current operation.
Bowery operates large-scale, commercial indoor farms that grow leafy greens and herbs, harvested and delivered locally within a day.
Q: How many people are currently needed to run the farm in Kearny?
IF: We currently have 38 people (and counting!) working at Bowery, ranging from modern farmers to engineers, software developers, and sales representatives.
Q: Do you clone or is your food grown purely from seed and what’s the turnaround time from seed to harvest?
IF: Bowery produce is grown from non-GMO seeds that are selected for flavor and quality. Not only do we grow more than twice as fast as the field in many cases, but because we grow indoors, year-round, we also grow more crop cycles per year and are over100x more productive per square foot of land than traditional agriculture.
Q: How about water usage, is the water cleaned and reused?
IF: Our indoor growing methods save 95%+ of water over traditional farming because we use an automated irrigation system that can measure and maintain optimal levels of water to support plant growth. This ensures that we give our plants what they need and nothing more, and we can recycle the water that’s left over.
Q: I understand you just grow greens in Kearny, do you intend to expand the menu there to include melons, tomatoes or potatoes…and the like?
IF: Right now we’re focused on delivering the highest quality and best tasting leafy greens possible but we’ve already started experimenting with other types of produce and plan to expand our offerings in the near future. Because we grow indoors and are unaffected by seasonality, we’re able to test many different types of crops that are normally tricky to grow in the northeast.
Q: As the produce is continuously monitored by an array of watchdog sensors, would you say your farm is an amalgamation of an IoT (Internet of Things) platform, M2M (Machine to Machine), and Vertical farming? Sort of an electronic Frankenfarm?
IF: BoweryOS, our proprietary technology system, functions as the brains of the farm, monitoring plants and the variables that drive their growth 24/7, in addition to serving as a workflow management system. BoweryOS can automatically adjust environmental conditions to optimize plant growth, quality, yield, and flavor, while utilizing an extensive network of sensors and cameras to collect millions of data points in real-time.
By capturing large amounts of data at each step, BoweryOS can constantly iterate on each environmental input in order to provide all crops with exactly what they need to thrive. For example, if BoweryOS detects signs of stress in a crop based on images from its vision system, it can automatically reduce the light that the crop receives in order to return the plant to optimal growth and quality.
Q: With Bowery in absolute control over the entire growing process to include color, texture, and nutrition, do you believe this ‘creation to specification’ to be the wave of the future in indoor farming?
IF: Yes, controlling the entire growing process from seed to store comes with so many benefits. It means our produce is the purest available and food you can truly feel good about eating. It also allows for us to grow with zero pesticides. Because we grow in a completely closed environment, we also drastically minimize the risk of contamination from food-borne illness.
We’re uniquely positioned to reduce food waste because BoweryOS precisely allocates the exact amount of resources that our plants need for optimal growth, and tells us when to harvest them at their peak to reduce spoilage. Because we grow near the urban centers we serve, Bowery produce is in stores less than a day after harvest, reducing spoilage in transit and extending shelf-life.
Q: What will a Bowery Farm of the future be growing?
IF: Right now, at our first farm in New Jersey, we’re focused on delivering the best leafy greens possible, but we’ve already started experimenting with other types of produce and plan to expand our offerings in the near future. This summer we will open our next farm which will be the most technologically-sophisticated commercial indoor farm in the world.
Q: Would you agree hydroponics/vertical gardening is the future of sustainable farming?
IF: Yes. The global population is projected to reach 9-10 billion people by 2050 (75-80% of which will live in and around cities). In order to feed a population of that size, we’ll need 70% more food, meaning that more food will need to be produced in the next 4 decades than has been produced in the last 10,000 years.
Bowery is 100+ times more productive on the same footprint of land. While vertical stacking is part of the increase in productivity, we are also able to grow many crops twice as fast as the field, with more crop cycles per year than the field, and more yield per crop cycle as well. Also, by growing our plants indoors we are able to grow reliably, year-round using 95%+ less water.
Q: Is this method of smart-farming something you could see being scaled down to a family-sized undertaking as in a backyard greenhouse or basement?
IF: Our proprietary technology is meant for large-scale, commercial farming operations, but we’re really happy to see so much enthusiasm behind various farming methods, at-home and beyond. There’s a clear need to improve upon the traditional agriculture industry and we believe in producing food in a way that’s better for us and our environment.
Finding ways to feed an exploding population is one of the greatest challenges facing farmers today and the agri-world of tomorrow. Producing enough food without exhausting the planet’s limited resources will remain a demanding and daunting task but thankfully, enterprises like Bowery Farming are taking up that challenge.
And while large-scale indoor farming is still in its infancy, smart farms like those being developed by Irving Fain, offer a sneak peek into what the future of farming might look like. The Bowery team’s dedication to discovering and employing vastly more efficient agricultural methods than current conventional means is inspirational. Their results, promising.
Changing the way we farm in an effort to better feed the world is a noble and demanding undertaking and Bowery is helping lead the way by growing more food more efficiently in an eco-friendly environment. It’s reassuring to know that big steps are being taken in food production while a smaller footprint is being left behind.
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