Food Tech

Inside indoor-farming giant, Bowery Farming

A look inside Bowery Farming’s Nottingham, Maryland facility, the company’s third location.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Bowery Farming Inc, Getty Images

· 5 min read

Inside an unassuming warehouse in the Baltimore suburb of Nottingham, Maryland, nestled behind the White Marsh Mall and the Chesapeake Brewing Company, there’s a farm.

The agricultural warehouse belongs to Bowery Farming, one of the country’s largest indoor-farming companies. In late May, we took a tour of the facility, which grows hundreds of thousands of plants, including kale, arugula, butterhead lettuce, and basil. The Nottingham location was opened in 2020 as Bowery’s third farm, and although it’s not its largest farm, the company says it’s 100x bigger than its first farm, located in Kearny, New Jersey.

Here’s what it’s like inside the facility, which could offer a glimpse of the future of agriculture.

Upon arrival

The warehouse can only be identified as Bowery’s by a lone sign on the corner of the building. Inside, employees check in using ID cards and stroll through pristine white halls that feel much more like a corporate office than a farm in vibe.

To move from this classic corporate landscape and into the farmscape, visitors first must pass through the decontamination room. Here, anyone planning to enter the farm proper has to don hairnets and white lab coats, remove watches and other jewelry, and scrub their shoes in a soapy water mixture before stepping out onto the farm floor.

The farm floor is populated by others in white lab coats—mostly Bowery’s “farmers”—many of whom arrived at Bowery with very little agricultural experience. Back on the other side of the farm’s walls, in thamore office-like environment, people in casual clothes (read: not white lab coats) handle the business side of things.

Underlying each plant, machine, and worker at the farm is the Bowery OS, which Henry Sztul, the company’s chief science officer, described as “custom-built software and hardware and AI that lets us either connect to various systems or manage the flow of material and operation in our farms.”

The OS is connected to the various harvesting and planting machines and sensors on the farm, and programs them to monitor and adjust conditions like temperature, humidity, light levels, and CO2 levels, helping farmers track how long plants have been growing and keep real-time tabs on farm operations. 

The LED lifecycle

Plants at Bowery begin their life cycle in a smaller room adjacent to the factory floor: The seeding room, where an automatic seeding machine, programmed via Bowery OS, precisely distributes the right number of seeds for each crop.

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Then, trays of seedlings are sent to the germination room next door, where they are stacked vertically and kept in a 100% humidity environment so they can, you know, germinate. This stage takes between two and eight days depending on the crop, information Bowery has thanks to QR codes affixed to each tray, which stays with them all the way through harvesting.

After germination, a conveyor-belt system ferries plant trays across the farm into the grow room, where the OS uses robots to automatically organize and place each individual tray in a massive, multi-story complex of plants.

“Every position in the sea of thousands of growth positions is not going to be exactly identical. There’s going to be little changes. We have temperature sensors, navigating sensors, we have cameras everywhere to understand, as well as flow sensors and things like that, ‘What is the state right now?’” Sztul said.

The cameras in the grow room are paired with deep-learning algorithms that are able to identify issues like arugula turning purple under stress, or butterhead lettuce turning yellow from tip burn, and flag them to the facility’s grower—the resident agricultural expert who manages the grow room—who can address them before they becomes a larger issue.

Bowery’s plants are grown hydroponically, suspended in nutrient-rich water that is constantly recycled back into the grow room, which Bowery claims results in 90% less water usage than traditional farming. Sztul said the flexibility of a hydroponic setup allows experimentation in a variety of growing techniques.

Roughly 100,000 plant trays are grown in the Nottingham facility alone every year, and after they mature, they are harvested. The robotic harvesters outside the grow room run automatically, cutting the crops at prescribed heights and placing them in bins with QR codes, where they’re then weighed.

From there, the bins are sent to the cold-storage room, where harvested plants, (except for basil, which does not like cold climes, as confirmed by my personal experience watching it wilt in the fridge) are kept in a near-freezing environment and go through automated quality control and packaging, before eventually getting shipped off to grocers.

Bowery hasn’t disclosed revenue, but the company has partnerships with grocers like Walmart, Giant, and Whole Foods and has raised over $646 million in funding to date. It plans to build two new facilities in the Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas, Texas metro areas in Q1 2023.

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