Workers at Bowery Farming’s warehouse near New York have swapped out a farmer’s hoe for a computer tablet that takes real-time readings of light and water conditions.
Launched in 2015, Bowery is part of the fast-growing vertical farming movement, which employs technology in a controlled, man-made setting to grow fresh vegetables indoors all year long.
Champions of the practice see vertical farming as a key tool to meet the world’s food needs at a time when the population is rising and the climate is changing.
The company’s chief executive and co-founder, Irving Fain, said his company’s Kearny, New Jersey site uses fewer resources than traditional farms and does not employ pesticides.
“I have been a big believer my entire life in technology as being able to solve not only hard problems, but also important problems,” said Fain, who previously ran a company that provides data analysis for big companies on their loyalty programs.
Bowery employs more programmers than agricultural scientists. The company says its use of algorithms enables it to be 100 times more productive per area compared with a traditional farm and to use 95 percent less water.
Vertical farming has long been practiced in Japan and some other places but it did not take off in the United States until recent technological leaps made it viable.
A key component has been LED bulbs, which have enabled indoor farmers to drastically cut electricity costs.
But Bowery is also making heavy use of robotics and artificial intelligence to keep prices under control. The combination of these newer tools “is how we really rethink what agriculture will look like in the next century and beyond,” Fain said.
The company has also benefited from more than $120 million in funding from tech titans including Google Ventures and Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi.
The Silicon Valley connection has also boosted San Francisco-based Plenty, another prominent vertical farming company, which has garnered more than $200 million from Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, Softbank and others.
US-based Crop One and Emirates Flight Catering have launched a $40 million joint venture to build a giant vertical farming facility in Dubai. The world’s biggest vertical farm is in Newark, New Jersey and operated by AeroFarms.
The company, founded in 2004 and considered a pioneer in the sector, remains privately-held and does not disclose financial data. But the company says it is now profitable after a series of fumbles.
David Chang, founder of the noodle restaurant brand Momofuku, is an investor.
AeroFarms exclusively uses company-made technology that has now made its way to China, the Middle East and Europe, said its co-founder Marc Oshima.