At New York-based Bowery Farming, they believe in continuous improvement of product and processes. That belief was fully on display at the company’s largest indoor-farming facility to date, the approximately 150,000-square-foot Bethlehem, Pa., farm, which Progressive Grocer was recently invited to visit.
With safety and sanitation protocols firmly in place, the tour, led by SVP Design and Development Scott Horoho and VP Communications Graham James, got underway. The first stop was the seed room, where the correct number of seeds is implanted in flats — each with its own bar code containing all of the necessary information about the seeds — that are then placed on customized germination racks optimized for space utilization and sanitation.
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Next on the itinerary was the germination room — or rooms, since there are four, each providing the ideal growing conditions for certain cultivars. Once germination has occurred, the seeds travel to the grow room, which features 15 robots to place them in the correct position. The grow room features plants at different phases of growth, but the Bowery Operating System (OS) keeps track of them all, making sure that the correct growing “recipe” is delivered to each cultivar, with cameras and monitors carefully monitoring their progress. In fact, a team in Kearney, N.J., actually runs the farm remotely.
One particular feature of Bowery’s growing process, as Horoho pointed out, is that much of the machinery in use has been specifically customized to the company’s particular needs. While in this area, PG was treated to some freshly picked greens, including tender red oakleaf and butter lettuces, mustard frills that fully lived up to their name, and a mellow kale.
From there, the plants are moved to a space where they’re transplanted into larger receptacles to aid growth, and then returned to the grow room. This action, which used to be done by hand, has now been automated, which has sped up the process by an amazing 600%, according to Horoho, who further noted that all employees gain hands-on experience via “farm days,” during which they learn how the crops are grown. The engineers he oversees do two weeks of this activity.
When the plants are ready for harvesting, they go to chill and cold pack rooms where specialized machines that can distinguish among the various cultivars weigh them to determine the size of the yield and check for defects; then the plants are assembled into customized blends according to customer specifications, packed, and placed in cases awaiting shipping to local foodservice providers, restaurants and retailers, among them Whole Foods Market, Giant Food and Albertsons Cos.-owned stores, as well as local independents such as Gerrity’s and e-commerce partners like Amazon Fresh. Horoho estimated that the entire process, from the planting of the seeds until the harvested crops are loaded onto trucks, is in “the upper 90th percentile” hands-free. It also takes a mere 25-30 days, enabling Bowery to achieve 10-12 growth cycles per year.
While many indoor-farming companies boast their sustainability cred — less water usage than traditional crops, no pesticides, the ability to grow crops locally rather than transporting them from far away — the true differentiator for Bowery is its OS, which Horoho described as the “central nervous system” of the organization, enabling it to make its process more intelligent and efficient, and facilitating an ecosystem on a potentially global scale. Additionally, the company’s breeding of certain cultivar seeds for taste rather than hardiness — the latter quality no longer being an issue in a controlled-agriculture setting — could quite possibly transform the typical supermarket produce department. For one thing, as James observed, “Seasonality is gone,” since these cultivars can be grown year-round.
Meanwhile, Bowery continues to learn from its operations, and with each successive iteration — besides the R&D facilities in Kearney and the farm in Bethlehem, there are farms outside Baltimore, Atlanta and Dallas, with scouting in progress for two more sites — it continues to enhance the growing process via its OS, thereby enabling its network of farms serving local communities to “get smarter all the time,” as James and Horoho put it.