Food Tech

At this vertical farm, green thumbs aren’t required

Bowery Farming says "very few" of its "farmers" have agricultural experience.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Bowery Farming Inc.

· 4 min read

Farming tends to be a generational business, with legacy farms often being handed down between family members. And for its part, the USDA considers anyone who has operated a farm for less than ten years to be a “beginning farmer or rancher.”

But hands-on experience is less important for some roles in the world of indoor farming. Although indoor farming is far from dominating agricultural output, money has poured into the space in the past decade, with multimillion-dollar funding rounds fueling an industry now valued at $79.3 billion, which is expected to grow to $155.6 billion by 2026, per Pitchbook.

One example: Bowery Farming, an over-600-person operation that has the capacity to produce more than 47 million servings of leafy greens per year across its three US-based vertical farms, with the help of a proprietary OS and a slew of other technologies. At Bowery’s Nottingham, Maryland, farm, “very few” of the facility’s 70+ full-time employees have backgrounds in traditional farming, Bowery Chief Science Officer Henry Sztul told Emerging Tech Brew during a May visit to the facility.

“I define a grower as someone with horticultural experience that can diagnose what’s going well and what needs improvement from the perspective of the plants in the system. We have one grower,” Sztul said. “The profile of our modern farmers are people who might be more akin to working in a manufacturing-type setting. There doesn’t need to be many people here. What we call our ‘farmers’ are really out helping with the seeding, with the transplanting, with the harvesting, with the packing.”

Leafy greens inside of Bowery's Nottingham facility. (Jordan McDonald)

One of Bowery’s farmers is Autumn Hopkins, a Bel Air, Maryland, resident who has risen to become a farm operations supervisor at the Nottingham facility. Hopkins started at Bowery in June 2020, not long after the facility opened . Previously, her only experience with food was in the restaurant industry—she said she joined Bowery based on a whim and a desire to try something new.

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“When I was looking at it, I was like, ‘I like gardening. It’s something I could get behind. It’s something different.’ But I’ve never seen a farm out here, near the White Marsh Mall,” Hopkins told Emerging Tech Brew. “When I came here, I was very shocked by what I saw. There were glass doors. Everyone was put together… It’s very orderly. I was on the phone…talking to my mom, [telling her] it’s gardening but a little more corporate, but not.”

Hopkins started her Bowery career in the cold-pack room, a just-above-freezing room where farmers package and label harvested plants just before they ship out to grocery like Whole Foods and Walmart. From there, she moved into the processing floor, where she took pictures to monitor crop status, checked identification tags on crop-growing trays, and harvested crops from the grow room.

Today, Hopkins manages all 35 of the Nottingham facility’s farmers, where she said she trains and guides new farmers on how to manage the plants. Hopkins said that “very few” of her farmers have prior experience as farmhands or at other growing operations.

Besides the farmers at Nottingham, the facility also houses other employees like plant breeders, plant physiologists, biochemists, engineers, AI and robotics experts, as well as sales and marketing professionals.

In January 2022, Bowery secured a $150 million credit facility led by private equity giant KKR, building off a then record-breaking ~$300 million Series C raised in May 2021. The company has pulled in ~$647 million since its founding in 2015, per Crunchbase.

Looking ahead: In late May, Bowery opened its third farm, located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which it says will also employ at least 70 people. It plans to open two more facilities in Q1 2023 in the Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas metro areas.

(Disclosure: KKR is the parent of Axel Springer, the parent of Insider, which acquired a majority stake in Morning Brew in 2020.)

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