A portion of the former Bethlehem Steel brownfield site has gone green.
Bowery Farming officially opened Thursday with tours for local and state dignitaries and community members to show how vertical farming can feed close to 50 million people in a 200-mile radius of the facility at 1925 Feather Way in the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VII.
Irving Fain, president and CEO of New York-based Bowery Farming, said the Bethlehem site was chosen for the company’s third and most technologically advanced farm because of the area’s spirit of industry.
“We are carrying on the innovation and leadership of the area,” he said.
The farm, housed in a 150,000-square-foot facility on an 8.7-acre site, employs 70 “modern” farmers to run the fully automated commercial farm that will provide lettuce, green leafy vegetables, herbs, and, in the future, strawberries and other berries, said Katie Seawell, chief commercial officer for Bowery Farming, who led one of the tours.
Bowery Farming made a $32-million investment in the facility and received a $210,000 Pennsylvania First grant and a $250,000 Enterprise Zone grant from the state to build the facility. The company also received a $50,000 workforce grant to train its “modern” farmers.
“In addition to bringing at least 70 jobs to Bethlehem, Bowery Farming is innovating to feed the future and fight food insecurity,” said Governor Tom Wolf. “This project is a win for agriculture and a win for Pennsylvanians,” he said, adding that agriculture is a $132 billion industry in Pennsylvania that employs 600,000 people.
“If we’ve learned anything from the past two years it is that we are in a period of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty across our climate and geopolitical circumstances, which unfortunately is going to persist,” Fain said.
“We are also seeing firsthand that our global food system is inextricably tied to these dynamics,” he said. “At Bowery, wherever food is needed, we can grow it. We are addressing the challenges in our system by growing food smarter for more people in more places — and that work, securing food for our future, continues today with the opening of our Bethlehem Farm.”
“We stack crops from floor to ceiling and use LED lighting that mimics sunlight,” Seawell said during the farm tour.
The BoweryOS system (the company’s propriety operating 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,” she said.
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,” Seawell 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 process starts with the BoweryOS system planting seeds in trays, each of which has a QR code, which allows the company to track the plants from start to packaging, ensuring the quality and safety of the finished product.
The BoweryOS system controls the “recipe” for each plant – the amount of water, light, air flow and time needed for growing.
Seawell led the tour through the process, showing how a fully automated system takes the planted seed trays to the germination room onto the growing room to processing and packaging.
In the growing room, trays of seedlings sit side by side with more mature plants, allowing production to continue 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The BoweryOS system sets the light, water and airflow for each individual tray to allow the plants to grow to optimum nutrition and taste in tight quarters.
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. That means we will need 50% more food than we do today,” she said. “In order to meet that demand, we would have to convert our forests into agriculture. That’s not good for the planet.”
This facility, she said, grows produce that would take up about 100 acres of land in traditional farming.
Seawell pointed out that because the plants are grown in a secure environment that keeps environmental exposures out, the produce is not susceptible to diseases like E. coli, which devastated the romaine lettuce crops earlier this year.
“With the QR codes, the flats of plants are tracked with complete transparency so we can prove the product is safe,” she said.
During the processing of the plants, an automated conveyor belt separates leaves that are not marketable. Seawell said Bowery has partnered with Four Springs Farms in Kutztown, which takes the rejected leaves for compost.
The packaged products are sold at regional retail customers including Whole Foods Market, Giant of Landover and Albertsons Companies’ stores, as well as e-commerce partners like Amazon Fresh.
The company is also working with local distributors, including Four Seasons Produce, to serve specialty and independent grocery partners throughout the region, like local grocer Gerrity’s in Bethlehem.
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.