Agriculture is growing up.
Vertically, that is.
Bowery Farming, a company started by Irving Fain in 2015, is opening an indoor vertical farming operation in Bethlehem in May.
The farm, opening in a new, state-of-the-art 150,000-square-foot facility on an 8.7-acre former brownfield site, will employ 70 “modern” farmers to run the fully automated commercial farm that will provide lettuce, green leafy vegetables and, in the future, strawberries and other berries to the 49 million people in a 200-mile radius, said Katie Seawell, chief commercial officer for Bowery Farms.
The New York-based company has two operating farms, one in Kearny, New Jersey, and the other in Nottingham, Maryland. Seawell said the Bethlehem farm will be the largest, most technologically advanced commercial farm in the company’s network.
“Controlled environmental agriculture is an emerging category,” she said. “Greenhouses have been around for a long time, but vertical farming takes up less space and produces much more.”
The company created BoweryOS, a proprietary system which integrates software, hardware, sensors, computer vision systems, machine learning models and robotics to orchestrate and automate the entirety of operations, Seawell said.
“We stack crops from floor to ceiling and use LED lighting that mimics sunlight,” she said. The BoweryOS system can change the amount of sunlight needed for each type of plant being grown.
Plants are grown 365 days a year and are rotated so the seedlings are being started as other plants are maturing.
“We choose sites in urban areas, so the produce doesn’t have to travel far to get to the markets,” Sewell said. “We started the first seeds two weeks ago [in Bethlehem] and will be ready to go commercial in the next few months.”
The beauty of indoor vertical farming, besides taking up much less room, is that there are no pests, so no pesticide is needed.
“We meet all food safety standards, a core of our operation,” she said.
“The BoweryOS system is the brain of the farm. With the integrated sensors, we can capture data that tells us what the plants need.” She said each crop requires different amounts of light, water, airflow and nutrients.
“We can produce quality, flavor and yield with precision,” she said. “It’s like a game of Tetris.”
The indoor vertical farm structure allows Bowery Farming to use less water than traditional farms because the water is recaptured using a HVAC system. Seawell explained that as plants mature, they give off water that is collected and recycled.
“The United Nations said by 2050 there will be nine to 10 million people to feed,” she said. “That means we will need 50% more food than we do today. In order to meet that demand, we would have to convert our forests into agriculture. That’s not good for the planet.”
The Bowery Farming model, she said, will play an important role in creating enough food safely and more sustainably.
In addition to growing food in smaller spaces, Seawell said the crops mature in 25 to 30 days instead of the two to three months it takes on traditional farms. It takes the company 48 to 72 hours to harvest and deliver the food to the market.
That, she said, is a “stark contrast” to the 90% of leafy greens grown in the U.S., which are transported more than 3,000 miles to consumers on the East Coast.
Since the beginning of 2020, Bowery has expanded from 100 to more than 1,000 major grocery stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, including Albertsons Companies (Safeway and Acme), Amazon Fresh, Giant Food, Walmart, Wakefern, Weis, Whole Food Markets, and specialty grocers. It also sells on ecommerce platforms like Amazon and Fresh Direct.
“Pennsylvania welcomes Bowery Farming to our commonwealth’s rich and diverse agriculture industry and looks forward to supporting the company’s growth as it reimagines how farming can be more sustainable and impactful to our communities,” said Gov. Tom Wolf.
“Bowery’s expansion will generate new opportunities by establishing this technologically advanced indoor vertical farm and will create new year-round sustainable jobs and a chance to address food insecurity throughout Eastern and Central Pennsylvania,” he said.
Bowery Farming received a funding proposal from the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) for a $210,000 Pennsylvania First grant and $50,000 in grant funding for workforce training, Wolf said.
The company has been encouraged to apply for a Neighborhood Assistance Enterprise Zone Tax Credit (NAP-EZP).
The project was coordinated by the Governor’s Action Team.
Bowery Farming is also ready to launch new farms in the first quarter of 2023 in the Atlanta, Georgia and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas metro areas.