Food and drink / Startups

Bowery is sprouting in Baltimore with a new automated indoor farm

With a mission to democratize food access, the indoor farming startup sees the White Marsh location as a mid-Atlantic hub.

Inside Bowery's indoor farming operation. (Courtesy photo)
Correction: Bowery will have 80 employees, not 100. (10:30 p.m., 2/20/20)

On land in White Marsh that was once associated with a working farm, new growth is taking root. But it didn’t require clearing away the building on the site: All of the growing is done inside.

“We are turning what was once an industrial warehouse back into a modern farm,” said Katie Seawell, chief marketing officer of Bowery Farming.

In early November, Bowery Farming opened a new indoor farming operation inside the warehouse on Franklin Square Drive, and has been ramping up operations.

First flagged by Fast Company, it’s the third and largest farm for the New York-based startup, which in 2018 raised $90 million in a round led by Google Ventures.

Using technology that allows farming to go beyond the limits that the land imposes, the company has a mission to democratize access to fresh produce. It initially opened two farms in Kearney, New Jersey, serving the tri-state area.

With the expansion to Baltimore, the company is seeking a wider foothold in the mid-Atlantic. Seawell said the White Marsh location will open up distribution into a 150-mile radius where it can reach a potential 25 million people.

The company looks to hire locally even as it thinks regionally, and Seawell said White Marsh proved to be a transit-accessible location.

When it is fully-staffed, Bowery Farming expects to have about 80 farmers working at the space, in a mix of hourly and supervisory roles. Even for folks with no prior farming experience, Bowery looks to offer opportunities for farmers to move up within the organization as they gain skills. The farmers rotate through different roles on the farm, learning different aspects. Seawell recalled one farmer whom she met in the early days of the Kearney farm, when he had a role in the packing section.

“I just ran into him last week and he was now in a support role for the ag science team,” she said.

They also seek out opportunities to support growth. In New York, the engineering team recently taught a coding class.

Inside the farm itself, hydroponics — the process of growing plants without soil — is key to the vertical farming operation, and technology plays a big role, too. CEO Irving Fain teamed with cofounders to apply technology to a big mission area. The team devised a system called BoweryOS to run the farm, which uses visual systems, sensory systems and automation. With data-gathering techniques and machine learning, the company sees its farms as a network, so the data is helping to build on what’s been done at the other two locations.

“Even though it’s the newest farm, it’s the smartest farm we’ve ever had,” Seawell said.

Little baby plants in rows

Bowery Farming from above. (Courtesy photo)

When it comes to the crops themselves, the farm has leafy greens and herbs in the market now. They’re available through Amazon Fresh, and Bowery is working on developing retail partnerships in the region to bring produce in the spring and summer. The company is also working to move beyond the “leafy green” category, which is often a staple of indoor farms, and is testing other crops. It also has a partnership to regularly deliver hundreds of pounds of produce to the Maryland Food Bank.

Vertical farming doesn’t only upend the traditional growing model. With a wider food system that often involves food being shipped long distances, Bowery’s indoor farming approach yields lots of promise to bring production closer to where it’s eaten, employ local folks and offer a pesticide-free product.

Still, indoor farming remains new, and it’s entering an existing market with plenty of other produce players. As such, it has to make a product that’s attractive to folks, as well, and Seawell said the company has also put a lot of time and care into not just the operations, but also how it tastes.

“We believe we have a great-tasting product,” Seawell said.


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