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Vertical Farms NYC

New York metropolitan area is a nice place to be if you’re into indoor farming. Here are few examples of what they’ve got going on.

Aerofarms

This New Jersey startup has received tens of millions in funding in the past fifteen years. They’re based in New Jersey, but the skyline in the animated graphic on their spectacular homepage is most definitely Dallas.

What did they do with all this funding? Their big farm is in Newark, measuring THIRTY THOUSAND square feet. And remember, this is a vertical farm. They should list the size in cubic feet.

Aero’s website is impressive and inspiring. It advertises the same noble message I’m seeing on every vertical farm website: by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet, with less arable farm land than there exists today. To solve the world food shortage crisis, Aero grows 390 times more crops per square foot than soil-based farms. As expected, they grow the freshest greens with no pesticides and no GMO. Their produce is nutritional and “bursting with flavor”. I’m starting to see that “nutritional” and “bursting with flavor” are interrelated selling points for vertical farms in general, and that there might be some genetic reason for this link that dates back to humanity’s hunter-gatherer days. Either way, I’m sold.

Still, something about this impending world food crisis doesn’t make much sense. It’s fantastic they’re trying to avoid or solve a very big problem that could affect a good chunk of the world’s population, but I’m wondering: how are the places that need food the most going to afford a fancy, data-driven vertical farm run by robots and AI?

The overpopulation and food scarcity won’t be happening in the rich countries that can afford this high-tech farming gear. People are living longer in America but the fertility rate is below 2.0. Japan’s fertility rate is so low they’re expected to lose fifty million people by 2050! (I got this stat on population pyramid dot net.) So what is Aero’s plan to save the world from going hungry? Do they propose to grow produce with robots in rich countries and then ship it overseas? If so that eliminates the “hyper-local” factor. I’m making a mental note to ask them about this.

Their website also has an image showing how the growing process works. It looks like they use a cloth barrier to hold the plants above the growing solution, and in at least one of the growing stages there is an aeroponic barrier instead of liquid nutrient solution. I’m guessing these must be technical trademarks.

I wrote them via their website contact form with questions about their software, and about their strategies for saving the world; but a week later and no response.

Bowery Farming

Based in New York City, Bowery Farms looks like the archetype for “Urban Farming”. They cater to upscale restaurants that distribute their produce to select, local grocery stores within short driving range of their farms. Like many vertical farm websites, their message is positive. They “believe a better future is possible,” and “set big, bold goals”. They also “practice radical candor” and “say hello when (they) walk through the door”. On the surface “Radical candor” sounds like the kind of place I’d like to work. Saying hello when walking through the door seems like basic human nature, but maybe that’s something you have to remind New Yorkers every day.

As for what systems they use: “BoweryOS, our proprietary software system, uses vision systems, automation technology, and machine learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth 24/7.” I can’t imagine there are too many job postings on Indeed.com asking for experience with BoweryOS. Still, it sounds interesting. I’d have to guess it’s a collection of home-grown apps running on a Linux-based OS.

Bowery boasts some high productivity stats: “Bowery farms use zero pesticides, 95% less water, and are 100+ times more productive on the same footprint of land than traditional agriculture.” Good for them.

BrightFarms

Founded in 2011, this New York-based startup has accepted $113 million in funding so far to “pioneer the future of local, low-impact farming.” To be accurate, Bright builds horizontal farms. As the name might suggest, they use natural light to grow greens. There’s not a lot on their website about the tech they use, but they build greenhouses, so that eliminates the most expensive part of a typical indoor farm operation: electricity for lighting. I could be wrong about this, but their op appears to be low-tech compared to vertical farms. There’s no sign of robots or AI. They build, own, and operate greenhouse farms that create permanent green-collar jobs. Sounds great! When can I start?

These people might be based in NYC, but they design structures that can be built anywhere. From their website: “Yes, we grow salads. But we grow a lot of other things, too. Like, big ideas and positive attitudes, jobs in communities across the country, sunny greenhouses, and accessibility to fresh, delicious produce. But most of all we grow trust – your trust – by delivering clean, fresh, safe, and delicious greens.” Kudos to their marketing people. What a great message. It’s great to see such inspirational messages that are so low on BS. Their product is so obviously good. It requires zero spin. There are so many companies and whole industries that could never be so honest and positive about what they do.

Bright’s message about building green jobs sounds fantastic. This is a nice break from “robots are taking our jobs”. How can I get involved?

Gotham Greens

Founded in 2009, this Brooklyn startup has taken in around $45 million. Gotham also builds greenhouses, growing plants with natural light, like Bright farms. As usual there’s not as much detail as I’d like to see on their tech, but according to their website: “Our latest greenhouses are advanced, data-driven, climate-controlled facilities — the most efficient production systems available today. These greenhouses are some of the highest-yielding farms around, and use less energy, less land and less water than other farming techniques. Plus, advancements in machine learning and data analysis allow us to monitor our crop’s health and progress, so we can deliver a fresher, more delicious product. Happy greens make happy people.”

Sounds great! Way to go, NYC.

Next week I’m going to get a first-hand look at a vertical farm in Japan. I can’t wait.