Grow: Expanding our ability to provide, through technology

The Automated Gardens of Eden

Faster, cheaper lighting, robotics, machine learning, and data storage are finally making indoor farming not just feasible but fantastically productive and versatile.

Deep in the middle of winter, snow often blankets much of the East Coast of the U.S., and temperatures can drop below freezing. Not much grows in these frigid conditions. But stepping inside the warehouse and container farms of Bowery Farming or Square Roots in New York City, you would never know it. Here, greens thrive in optimal growing conditions, in which every bit of their environment is precisely measured and controlled by data-driven machine learning in the cloud.

In the next decade, it’s expected that urban populations will explode, extreme weather events will increase in frequency, and global food security will decline further—so these data-driven indoor urban farms meet a clear need. Not only can they run year-round, but they can produce more per square foot of land than traditional farms can—Bowery claims on average 100 times more—and are practically waste-free. By eliminating the uncertainty in growing conditions, we can ensure that crops generally don’t fail. And because urban-grown produce is on average just a day’s travel from its end market, it doesn’t tend to spoil in transit. The indoor farms are clean operations, too: Bowery says close to 95 percent of the water its uses can be recaptured and recycled, and no pesticides are needed. (Organic farms, contrary to popular belief, can use pesticides, as long as they are not man-made.)

Exploring what happens when possibility becomes reality.

Controlling quality is critically important to both Bowery Farming and Square Roots. By adjusting temperature, humidity, nutrient levels, and hundreds of other variables, the teams can micromanage taste, texture, nutritional value, and yield. The individual preferences of some customers can even be accommodated. For example, if a local chef wants a slightly spicier basil, the farm can reconfigure its environment to create that on a small scale, said Tobias Peggs, CEO and founder of Square Roots.

Farming isn’t what it used to be. Bowery and Square Roots are among the roughly 70 percent of American farmers who now use some sort of digital tool to help them optimize food production. While indoor farming has been around for a long time, it has mostly been confined to research labs or small-scale operations. What’s different today is that the technology needed to precisely control indoor farming conditions is better, faster, and cheaper: That means everything from lighting fixtures and sensors to robotics, machine learning, and data storage and processing in the cloud.

Six or seven years ago, the cost of many of these technologies dropped by more than 85 percent and the efficacy more than doubled, said Irving Fain, founder of Bowery Farming. For the first time, that meant indoor urban farming was commercially viable. Fain saw an opportunity to rethink what agriculture really looks like in cities in the 21st century.

But the technology is still evolving, to an extent. “The indoor urban farming industry today feels very similar to how the internet did in the mid-’90s,” said Peggs. “It’s inevitable, but many of the pieces in the technology puzzle are still coming into view.”

Though they both focus on varieties of leafy greens, Square Roots’s model is slightly different from that of Bowery Farming. It is almost like a franchise model. The individual farmers of its container farms sell directly to the community and are being coached to become farming entrepreneurs. “The magic in the system is really the farmers,” said Peggs. “We now know that we can add the love that comes from a fantastic farmer to the ingenuity of some pretty amazing technology and grow very tasty food, year-round, close to the consumer, in a profitable way.”

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of GROW, our discussion on how technology is impacting the ways we cultivate, prepare, and deliver food at home and beyond.