Bowery Farming is forcing us all to look up at the future of vertical agriculture

Food is the very nourishment of life, but it’s also becoming increasingly challenging to grow at scale. A combination of explosive and unsustainable population growth, human-made climate change and depleted sources of clean water is contributing to overcultivation across the world.

For its many advocates, vertical farming is a critical piece to solving that puzzle, even as skeptics cite its intensive power demands as a major hurdle toward achieving the long-term positive climate impact it promises.

Existential crises of climate change and substantial food shortages have fueled interest in alternative forms of food production, while innovations in technology have created the potential for delivering those ideas at scale.

The pursuit of sustainability was a key catalyst in the formation of Bowery Farming — and, for that matter, the development of vertical farming as a whole. Global climate disasters have spurred companies and governments to increasingly explore large-scale solutions, and that’s why increasingly bullish investors are pumping money into the space — the company raised a $300 million round this May.

Companies like Bowery have captured the imagination of the public for the role they might eventually play in helping reshape the 10,000-year-old practice of agriculture. It’s big talk, but it’s unsurprising in a world inexorably drawn to the notion that the solution to righting the wrongs of decades of harmful technologies can be found in technology itself. It’s a hopeful thought.

In the first part of this TC-1, I will look at the origins of Bowery Farming as well as the vertical farming movement as a whole. I’ll also discuss how Japan’s 2011 tragic earthquake catalyzed interest in the model and also explore how these new approaches to agriculture could usher in critical changes on an Earth with rapidly changing climates.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

The best way to understand a farm is to visit it, so I set up a tour to see what Bowery is building. I intend to arrive early, making some vague plans to walk to a nearby coffee shop, set up camp with caffeine and Wi-Fi, and prep for the day. As we approached the destination, however, that plan is quickly scrapped.

As the crow flies, Bowery Farming’s Kearny, New Jersey R&D center is roughly five miles from Manhattan, but the surrounding neighborhood contains none of the trappings of bustling city life. Just industrial warehouses and little else as far as the eye can see.

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Agriculture has a 10,000-year history, and it’s predominantly a history of technology. Developments from the plow and wheel to enclosures and the modern mechanical miracles of gas-powered tractors and sorters have consistently improved crop yields, allowing humanity to expand from tens of millions of people to a global population projected to top 10 billion this century.

When it comes to the next stages of that long course of innovation, vertical farming would seem to have all the right properties. Precise controls backed by data analysis can calibrate food quality, leading to further improvements in yields while reducing raw inputs like water. That’s critical at a time when the world’s climate is increasingly at a breaking point.

The energy efficiency of lamps or production systems can be improved, but not infinitely, so indoor crops will always be heavily dependent on electricity and other industrial support.

For Bowery Farming, no technology is too small to optimize, and no data is too insignificant to track. Combined together, the startup hopes to orchestrate the future of farming — and build a competitive moat in the process. To ultimately create a company of value, it needs to not just build differentiated technology but also build a brand with consumers, which we’ll turn to in the final part of this TC-1.

In parts one and two, I covered the history of vertical farming, Bowery’s origins and how it develops produce. In this third part, I’ll look at the company’s core tech infrastructure, explore how developments of just one component, LEDs, made vertical farming viable and investigate just how much climate savings Bowery can be expected to wring out as it grows in scale.


We can’t understand Bowery without describing BoweryOS. It’s the secret sauce that ties its automated systems, sensors and data collection together into a central nervous system. The company is tight-lipped about specifics but notes that it unlocks the ability to rapidly replicate its growth system at new farms.

“You could be the greatest farmer in the world in Salinas Valley, and I pick you up and bring you to New Jersey and that knowledge doesn’t transfer,” says Irving Fain, founder and CEO of Bowery Farming. “You put the Bowery operating system inside of that farm, and that farm now has the knowledge and understanding of every crop we’ve ever grown and every process we’ve ever run immediately available to it. In essence, what we’re really doing is building a distributed network of farms, whereby every new farm that enters that network benefits from the collective knowledge of the network that came before it.”

The voracious fight for your salad bowl

There are several plastic clamshells sitting in front of me on a conference room table — around 20 or so boxes, labels facing forward, with a plate of turnips and a tub of those R&D strawberries we saw back in part two.

It’s a nice photo opportunity, backdropped by Bowery Farming’s impressive grow system and a good visual representation of the product’s life cycle. More importantly, it’s a reminder of how most people will ultimately interact with the company.

Bowery’s clamshells in the foreground and grow system in the background. Image Credits: Brian Heater

My position at TechCrunch afforded me the grand tour, of course — the whole Willy Wonka, clean suit coveralls and taste-testing experience. In the company’s FAQ, the answer to “Can I visit a Bowery Farm?” is a simple, “At this time, we do not allow visitors to our farms.”

It’s understandable, of course. While the farms themselves are a great visual, there are too many resources and health precautions required to worry about giving tours to outsiders. On my own visit, my guides were extremely cautious about what could and couldn’t be photographed — trade secrets and all.

Given the novelty of vertical farming, and that some stigma still exists against the taste of indoor-grown produce, Bowery’s branding strategy largely revolves around blending in.

Press coverage, like this feature you’re currently reading, is part of the outreach. The company opens itself to journalists and the occasional video camera knowing that putting its farms on visual display is a powerful way to unlock the fascinating story of vertical farming.

Ahead of my own visit, I watched a broad range of videos featuring vertical farms from all over the world. My playlist featured everything from Nordic Harvest’s newly opened 75,000-square-foot facility in Copenhagen, to the modular urban farming setups Brooklyn-based Square Roots creates inside a shipping container you can purchase for just $80,000.

The size, the scope, the potential impact — the mind reels. Vertical farming may be a nascent space, but it is growing rapidly, and the greenfield is being taken quickly.

Most consumers will never interact with a Bowery farm beyond reading an article or watching a clip online, and there’s nothing particularly wrong about that. The truth is that urbanites will almost never set foot in the place where our food is grown — that there’s a connection at all is a kind of win in and of itself.

Ultimately though, building that individual connection with consumers will determine the fate of Bowery in the ultra-competitive produce market. Branding is a high priority for the firm, particularly as it battles competitors like AeroFarms, which recently announced that it will go public via SPAC before failing to secure investor approval.

In this fourth and final part of the TC-1, I’ll look at how the company is trying to invent brand loyalty in the produce section, figure out its packaging, design its supply chain and, finally, seek a path to profitability against a broad competitive landscape.

Lettuce have a taste

Bowery sees opportunity in the boutique clamshells that have begun propagating across produce shelves in recent years — first in upscale markets and then more mainstream grocery stores.