Technology Helps Grow Better Produce at Bowery Farming

Agriculture is one of the oldest industries in the world, and it touches everyone on the planet in one way or another. It’s also at the epicenter of many of the environmental and health problems we face today, to name a few. Today’s farmers are tasked with feeding a rapidly expanding population in a sustainable way using a limited amount of arable land. With a desire to make a broader impact and to work on something that he was personally passionate about, Irving Fain founded Bowery Farming in 2014, a hypdroponic urban farm.

On Tuesday, June 12, 2018, Bloomberg Television’s Scarlet Fu discussed Bowery Farming, innovation in agriculture and entrepreneurialism with Fain at Bloomberg’s Global Headquarters in New York City.

Technology is becoming a more integral part of agriculture, as farmers use drones and satellites to monitor crops, along with gene editing techniques and semiautonomous tractors. Innovation isn’t just happening in the fields, however. Farms are popping up in urban areas, and that lettuce you just ate may very well have been grown in that once empty warehouse down the street and harvested just a few days earlier.

A quick look at the stats exemplifies why there’s innovation in agriculture – at a time when water scarcity impacts every continent, 70% of the world’s water supply goes to the agricultural system. In the U.S. alone, Americans consume about 700 million pounds of pesticides a year, and internationally, that number is closer to 5 billion pounds a year. There’s also 30% less arable farmland than there was 40 years ago. “It’s having a real negative impact on the way we’re growing food and the environment around us – something has to change,” said Fain.

Bowery Farming is using technological innovations to solve this large, intractable societal problem. Its farms are located in a building where plants are grown hydroponically. This means that the roots themselves lay in water and the water contains the nutrients that the crops need. “We closely control the water, the depth, the temperature, the nutrients, and we control that by crop and stage of a crop,” said Fain.

The farm grows produce 365 days of the year – independent of weather and seasonality – and that produce grows twice as fast as in a traditional field. The environment is completely controlled and contained, thereby eliminating the need for pesticides and agrichemicals. When compared to traditional agriculture, growing plants hydroponically uses just a fraction of the amount of water than a traditional farm – up to 98% less – and is 100 times more productive than a square foot of farmland. While indoor farms can be energy intensive, Bowery Farms is beginning to rely more on renewable energy sources rather than grid energy from a city’s infrastructure.

One major driver that made Bowery Farming possible was the shift to LED lighting, especially after the Department of Energy realized that these were more energy efficient. “Innovation moved not only to LED fixtures overall, but to horticultural specific fixtures,” said Fain. “We can’t take any lights and just stick them in and grow plants; we need lights that are more specialized and focused on a horticultural purpose.”

What’s happened is a perfect storm of sorts, with lighting costs going down over 85% and efficiency going up. “These sort of all coalesce to allow what we do at Bowery and for indoor farming to become a profitable endeavor,” said Fain.

Beyond the lights, Bowery OS is the central nervous system of the farm that’s rooted in machine learning, algorithms, software and a combination of mechanical and systems engineering. Humans don’t monitor the crops at Bowery Farming; machine vision powered by artificial intelligence does. The resulting system is able to automatically make changes to improve the yield or alter the taste and flavor of a crop.

“We capture millions of data points in real time, ingest that data through a whole sensory control system, which our teams developed, and our system analyzes that data,” said Fain. “We achieve a plant vision system and that vision system takes photos of our crops in real time and runs them through our machine learning algorithms. We know what’s happening with a crop right now and whether it’s healthy, but then also predict what we will see with this crop based on what we’ve seen in the past and what tweaks and changes we want to make.”

Bowery Farming focuses on leafy greens and herbs at present and has attracted investors that include First Round Capital, Box Group, Lerer Hippeau, David Barber of Blue Hill, as well as chefs Tom Colicchio and José Andrés. Investors are focused on the company’s profitability and ability to gain a share of the more than $100 billion market in the U.S. and $1 trillion market internationally.

Conversations with investors have a unique agenda when it comes to hydroponic farming. “What’s important for us is that the unit economics and the profitability on a farm-by-farm basis makes sense and works,” said Fain. “We talk a lot about the investments that we’re making in technology and infrastructure and in our mechanical engineering and our systems engineering – how those are helping to drive greater profitability, greater scalability and greater efficiency.”

Besides the numbers, investors are not shy to judge how the food tastes – they want great products that are as good, if not better, than what’s grown in the field. “That core fantastic food, combined with the ability to democratize access to high quality fresh food by more people, that’s really appealing to Chef Andrés, to Chef Colicchio, to David Barber – everybody cares a lot about that,” said Fain.

You can watch the entire discussion below: