Bethlehem Bowery is a farm like no other

The “farmers” wore white coats; the gray floor was spotless. Eat it? You could.

The aroma of fresh greens, basil and more filled the air. Farmers packed produce in clamshell containers at an ambient temperature of around 38 degrees for shipment.

At Bowery Farming’s new facility south of Bethlehem, workers grow, harvest, pack and ship lettuce and other produce. Combining the advantages of local farms with advances in technology, Bowery precisely grows crops in a controlled indoor environment, without any pesticides and using 95% less water than traditional agriculture.

Bowery officials say they are reducing the time from harvest to table. About 90% of the lettuce sold in this country comes from California, according to a farmers’ organization and Katie Seawell, commercial director of Bowery. Seawell said those greens couldn’t be cooler for the 50 million people along the East Coast that Bowery intends to serve from its Bethlehem site.

“You can’t track that supply chain,” she said.

Federal, state and local officials gathered May 26 to celebrate the grand opening of Bowery Farming. The 156,000 square foot factory, on approximately 9 acres in Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VII near Route 412 and Highway 78, has been growing since early April and is now fully operational and shipping its products . The plans were announced in December 2020, shortly after work began on the farm.

Visitors saw fully grown produce being prepared to be shipped to salad lovers locally and elsewhere.

Bowery is the first such farm in the Lehigh Valley, but it’s one of many players in a growing field: At least 74 indoor farming businesses were founded in 2020 worldwide, according to an Associated Press article this year, and more may come.

The company said its indoor farms bring higher yields while using less land and water. Bowery officials say they also make it possible to grow produce year-round and closer to where people live, increasing supply reliability and reducing transport-related fuel consumption.

This type of agriculture also makes it possible to cultivate products throughout the year and closer to living places, increasing the reliability of supply and reducing fuel consumption linked to transport.

Francesco Di Gioia of Penn State University generally agreed with these claims. Di Gioia said that while, generally speaking, these farms come with higher production costs (including lighting and technology), the amount of production and greater efficiency that comes with indoor farming can offset these costs.

“The fact that this technology is improving over time and many companies are investing well, it seems to make things more competitive,” said Di Gioia, an assistant professor of vegetable crop science who studies vertical farming and heard of Bowery. . “But it all depends on the availability of electricity, and it’s going to be very expensive.”

Another benefit, Di Gioia said, comes from the nutritional aspect – that having fresh produce reaching consumers in a shorter time frame makes a difference. ” The length of the conversation [of leafy greens] is not too long,” he said.

And the price per container of these leafy greens could affect consumers’ buying interest, he also said. A spot check of Bowery prices for a 4-ounce container of salad greens was $2.98 at Walmart; Weis Supermarkets listed a 5-ounce salad mix for $2.99.

Products from indoor farms “aren’t cheap, so they might not be affordable for everyone,” he said. “But I believe in the future it may be more affordable.”

Various agencies, including NASA, and corporations have practiced indoor farming since at least the 1980s. A November 2021 article by the space agency said its interest in farming grew out of a need to feed astronauts during long-term space explorations. He claims to have built the nation’s first vertical farm in a hypobaric chamber left over from testing the Mercury space capsule.

The cost of crop lighting made it difficult to commercialize the process – indoor farmers couldn’t grow enough produce to make a profit – but a drop in LED costs in recent years has allowed more start businesses inside farming.

Irving Fain, 42-year-old founder and CEO of Bowery, started the company in 2015. To do this, it needed more than cheaper LEDs, Fain said: it needed to leverage innovation with robotics. , computers and artificial intelligence storage, and process large quantities. of data.

These are obstacles to the company’s growth, Fain said. The hurdle now, he said, is keeping a “driving opportunity” and greater efficiency to expand his crop range.

Here’s how the Bowery Indoor Vertical Farm:

A farmer pours seeds into a drum and starts the automated system which determines how many flats to prepare and how many seeds to include based on the growing preferences of a specific crop.

Next comes germination, during which the sown apartments are moved into a room for several days, each apartment on a varying schedule. Farmers receive notifications from the system when it’s time to move plants into the grow room. During the growth phase, the farm harvests water from the plants with the aim of recovering almost all of the water used for growth.

Then an automated conveyor belt retrieves the flats from the germination chamber. When crops are ready to harvest, the Bowery system signals that they can be picked. This initiates the movement of the trays from the grow room to the harvest station, where they are scanned by code. From there, crops are harvested automatically and packaged for retailers.

Throughout the process, Bowery’s operating system uses various sensors to monitor plant lighting, airflow and water supply. The LEDs mimic the spectrum of sunlight, programmed to give plants some time in the dark, as if they were growing outdoors. Bowery’s software knows where each type of crop is growing and can program the lights differently for each crop. It can also detect problems, such as if a light is off longer than usual or if a crop seems to be falling behind, in which case it is transplanted.

Bowery’s sophisticated system can let farmers know which crops are going to which stores.

The whole process takes about a month, which means Bowery’s Bethlehem Farm can potentially harvest 12 times a year, according to Seawell.

Bowery officials scoured the country to gauge public sentiment about his farming concept, Fain said, but “Pennsylvania and Bethlehem in particular came in with open arms and said, ‘We really want this to happen. produce”.

Seawell said the location of retailer distribution sites, potential customer base and the region’s workforce make Bethlehem a perfect location for the facility.

“There was a vision for how Pennsylvania can help move agriculture forward,” she said, a perspective shared by both the company and the state.

Governor Tom Wolf, one of the speakers at the inauguration, said the state provided Bowery with about $460,000 in grants and tax credits, while the company’s investment was about $32 million. He called it a valid agreement.

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Bowery also has farms in Kearny, New Jersey, two of which are for research and development. A third is a business operation serving grocers and e-commerce businesses in the Northeast. Another facility, in Nottingham, Maryland, runs on hydroelectric power. And the company has announced plans to expand near Atlanta and in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Morning Call reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at 610-820-6694 or [email protected]

Background: The Bowery Farming facility south of Bethlehem can grow pesticide-free produce indoors 365 days a year, with a growing cycle of around one month compared to two to three months for conventional farms. It was built to eventually provide enough produce for 50 million people in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Jobs and more: The private company Bowery is creating about 70 local jobs, although officials declined to discuss salaries or the number of positions it intends to fill with valley residents. The company partners with Second Harvest Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley and northeastern Pennsylvania to donate fresh produce.

Key statistics: The farm is powered by 100% renewable energy and features LED lighting and a custom water harvesting system. Bowery says it’s the largest vertical farming business in the country and sells to more than 1,000 grocery stores, from major grocery chains to Gerrity’s Valley Farm Market in Bethlehem.

Why Boery? Based in New York, the company’s name stems from the origins of a historic neighborhood in lower Manhattan, CEO Irving Fain said at the company’s May 26 event. Settled by the Dutch in 1654, the Bowery (originally spelled bouwerij, an Old Dutch word for farm) served as a great link between farmland and the heart of the city until the 17th century.

Source: Bowery Agriculture

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