It's easy to drive past Bowery Farming's Nottingham Farm, just north of Baltimore.
The farm is located in a warehouse complex that is in plain sight of the road, but at the far end of the parking lot. The sign that tells the world this warehouse building it's part of Bowery's network of next-generation farms is actually on the back side of the building, so visitors who know they are in the right place might also be a bit confused.
But once you walk through the glass doors, pass through a locker room to get protective clothing, and step into a foam sprayed on the floor that disinfects your shoes, it's apparent that it's a place where crops are grown — but unlike the farms everyone learned about as children.
A metal structure fills the room, with staircases winding up toward the ceiling. Massive shelves filled with trays of greens in various stages of development are stacked into several stories. The greens are lush and full — or they're seedlings that look like they will eventually get there. Some trays are in motion, being conveyed to points in the structure where they will find the optimal growing conditions.
Bars above each tray of greens provide them with sunlight. Some of them have water trickling in from a faucet to help them grow, then dripping out into a tray to recirculate. The farm feels humid, smells fresh as you walk near mature plants like patches of basil, and has the constant humming sound of extra carbon dioxide being pumped into the room.
Henry Sztul, chief science officer at Bowery Farming, pauses before walking up the steps of the mega-structure.
"It's really hard to get a sense for how big our farms are," he said, encouraging a look through the structure to the back wall of the warehouse, and up toward the ceiling. "And so you see how far it goes down here. How far it goes up."
Bowery Farming was founded in 2015 by former tech entrepreneur Irving Fain. It's spent the last seven years improving its system of vertical hydroponic gardening. The Nottingham Farm, which serves consumers in a radius of about 200 miles — including Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia — was the company's largest when it opened in late 2019.
As a company, Bowery is quite literally growing. It's newest and largest farm, located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, opens today. The Eastern Pennsylvania location will make fresh produce available to about 50 million people who live within 200 miles of the farm. And once this farm is in full swing, Bowery says it will be able to produce 47 million servings of leafy greens each year at all of its farms combined.
The growth is just continuing. In early 2023, the company is slated to open two more farms in Arlington, Texas, and Locust Grove, Georgia.
The company expansion is made by possible by what Bowery Farming Chief Commercial Officer Katie Seawell called momentum and energy around the company — and the entire next-generation farming space. Bowery was one of the first of the new generation of farms that uses technology and indoor spaces to grow fresh and sustainable greens year-round and nationwide. Money is helping that growth, too. Last year, it received a $300 million investment round — one of the largest ever in indoor farming — that it's using to expand its farms as well as improve its technology. Early this year, it secured a $150 million credit facility led by private accounts managed by KKR.
But, Seawell said, the expansion is also driven by how Bowery uses the latest in technology to make its produce grow and feed consumers with fresher greens than many are used to having.
"We are a new gold standard in produce," Seawell said. "When you look underneath at what consumers are caring about, [it's] pesticide free, local, freshness, safety."
How a vertical farming company grows
Sztul, who joined the company in its early days, has a Ph.D. in physics and had previously worked as an engineer and product developer at tech companies. Farming and agriculture wasn't in Sztul's background, but he was intrigued by how to use indoor farming to make a difference, and how to use technology to scale it up.
He's credited with being a key developer of the BoweryOS, the proprietary operating system that uses copious amounts of data and artificial intelligence to determine how to best grow a variety of crops. The system deploys that information to operate the farm smoothly, from planting to harvesting. About 70 people work at the Maryland farm, the company said. Their jobs entail different functions of working with the produce as it moves through the system, but not the manual work of seeding, watering or individually controlling lights or other growth factors for the trays of seedlings and greens. About 70 people will also be working at the new Pennsylvania farm.
"We are a new gold standard in produce. When you look underneath at what consumers are caring about, [it's] pesticide free, local, freshness, safety."
Chief commercial officer, Bowery Farming
The company's farms are all connected through the BoweryOS, Sztul said, and the system automates much of the work of farming. It's been a long journey to get Bowery to the point where each farm can be like a small factory, using calibrated technology and a controlled environment to produce pounds upon pounds of fresh, optimized hydroponic greens.
"How you do it and at an immense scale, and this complete, is what we've really been focused on," Sztul said. "As we iterate through our farms, with the opening of the Bethlehem farm, [it's] how to bring that scalability, reliability, consistency.
"The BoweryOS is really at its core, but also the operational efficiencies," he continued. "...How we can scale, our seeding capabilities, our transplanting capabilities, our harvesting capabilities, our packing."
Sztul called Bowery's process "science at scale." With every tray, Bowery is essentially making a crop cycle. With every farm the company opens, it creates about another 100,000 crop cycles for the year. Each of these provides data to improve the BoweryOS, looking at how well water and light levels, nutrients and varying levels of temperature and humidity combined to grow the crop.
This attention to detail has been beneficial for Bowery. The company's greens — for which it currently has 14 SKUs — are available in more than 1,000 stores. Consumers' reactions to Bowery's products have been overwhelmingly positive, Seawell said. The greens go from harvest to shelf within 48 to 72 hours, she said, which makes a huge difference.
Seawell remembered approaching Whole Foods Market to provide in-store lettuce sampling early in Bowery's history. She said they seemed a bit surprised. Nobody had ever wanted to do a lettuce tasting before. Seawell said the store asked if they were going to provide dressing or something to add flavor to the greens. Bowery responded that no, the intention was for consumers to taste just its lettuce — and that approach has proved successful.
"The freshness, the vibrancy of the flavor — and it's not just taste; it can be aroma, it can be texture, it can be color — that is breaking through with consumers," she said.
Sztul said that the freshness of Bowery's greens really struck him as a consumer. While working at the company, he brought home some of the greens that the company had raised and filled a spare refrigerator with them.
"I kept coming back to it day after day, week after week," he said. "A month later, I was going back down into the refrigerator in the basement and grabbing butterhead lettuce. And that's that's a difference, right? That's not a typical experience. That was when a light bulb went off for me."
Bowery isn't the only indoor farming company that's making inroads in produce today. AppHarvest, Gotham Greens, Local Bounti, Plenty, Kalera, 80 Acres and AeroFarms are just some of the companies expanding various means and methods of indoor farming throughout the United States. PitchBook has estimated that the segment will increase at a 14.4% compound annual growth rate, and be a $155.6 billion market by 2026.
Seawell said the building interest in the space and projected growth rates make sense.
"When you're looking at the food system right now, it's not going to sustain us where we need to go: feeding the global population that will reach 10 billion by 2050 as we're battling climate change," Seawell said. "I think we are celebrating all innovation that's happening in this space and doing disruptive things to attack the problems differently."
Bowery has some distinct new initiatives it is bringing to the produce section. In March, the company sold a limited run of its first strawberries at a few stores in New York City. The company grew two distinct strawberry cultivars. The Garden Berry, which it described as an "elevated expression of a perfect summer berry," and the Wild Berry, described as a "playful, provocative berry with concentrated flavor."
Seawell said that the work on strawberries actually started in early 2021, and it took quite a bit of work to assimilate growing the fruit to the existing Bowery system. The company needed to optimize finding the right cultivars, pollinating the flowers and growing the berries. Seawell said Bowery worked with about 25 different cultivars to find the best ones, but it has more "to play with" in the future.
A wider rollout of Bowery strawberries is planned for the near future, Seawell said. The company would be "thoughtfully scaling" them over the next 12 to 24 months, she said during a March interview.
In February, the company acquired Traptic, a company that uses robotic arms to harvest fruiting, vine and other crops using computer vision and AI. Considering the mature technology, the potential integration into the BoweryOS and the company's future vision, Seawell said the acquisition made good sense.
"Strawberries is just the beginning," Seawell said. "We think there's real opportunity with strawberries to tackle more of the fruiting crop platform, to get into tomatoes, to get into cucumbers."
"The freshness, the vibrancy of the flavor — and it's not just taste; it can be aroma, it can be texture, it can be color — that is breaking through with consumers."
Chief commercial officer, Bowery Farming
Bowery is also working to optimize the crops it grows, both to make them ideal for the indoor environment and to make something consumers want to eat. Seawell said there is a huge opportunity for indoor agriculture companies like Bowery to increase biodiversity of the crops grown for food — taking a step back from industrial agriculture that bred only a few varieties for outdoor hardiness, pest resistance and consistent yields. Many of the potential issues that traditional outdoor agriculture faces can be controlled in environments like the ones Bowery creates, making room for reviving more diverse varieties of crops.
The company is also taking a thoughtful approach to crop breeding, Seawell said. It is starting by taking a close look at arugula, a wild cultivar that Bowery is hoping to domesticate and improve. Bowery has partnered with the University of Arkansas, and they have selected more than 250 arugula cultivars for crossbreeding, Seawell said. They are looking to produce a variety that looks and tastes the best, and then they plan to understand what kind of genetics would help it do the best in Bowery's system.
As Bowery continues to expand, Seawell hopes that the brand, its sustainability aspects and the fresh produce it creates will resonate more deeply with consumers. In general, she said, food is emotional — but those feelings about brand and craft tend to be missing from the fresh produce section.
"I think we have a real opportunity," Seawell said. "Our goal at Bowery is to build a generational brand, right? Transform the produce category through the lens of brands that resonates with consumers on what's important to them. That's the job at hand."