After success with salad greens and herbs, Bowery Farming—backed by celebrity chef José Andrés—is tackling the tough-to-grow fruit.
On a cold winter day, chef José Andrés steps into a warehouse in the shadow of Newark airport. After donning a Tyvek suit and hairnet, he passes through a code-protected door and is ushered into a narrow, high-ceilinged room that smells … well … like a strawberry patch on a sunny June day.
The warehouse, in Kearny, N.J., is owned by Bowery Farming Inc., a seven-year-old company that’s grown into the largest vertical farming operation in the U.S. Like most others in the business, Bowery specializes in salad greens and herbs, which require relatively little space and time to grow. But Bowery is adding a splash of crimson to all that green: shiny red strawberries. And Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen—a nonprofit that brings food to disaster-stricken communities—as well as an investor in Bowery, has come to sample the crop.
The smell is as good as you can find, Andrés says after biting into a juicy red berry. And so is the taste.
The berry project is the latest initiative by Bowery founder Irving Fain, who’s raised about $650 million from investors. Fain is an evangelist for vertical farming, which he says is far more efficient than growing crops in fields. By precisely controlling variables such as water, light, and nutrients, Bowery says it can deliver high-quality produce to local consumers with less waste and without concerns over fickle weather in the age of global warming.
We’ve always understood that the market opportunity for what we’re doing is certainly much larger than just leafy greens and herbs, Fain says.
Bowery today has two warehouse-farms, the Kearny facility and another outside Baltimore, and it’s building three more. In February the company announced the acquisition of Traptic Inc., which makes artificial-intelligence-enabled robotic arms that pick strawberries. The goal is to develop the technology to work with a wide variety of crops and push the envelope of what a vertical farm can produce.
Tomatoes, other berries, peppers, cucumbers, Fain says. Crops that grow differently from the lettuces that we grow today.
One reason Bowery is focused on strawberries, Fain says, is to make them more eco-friendly. Because of the vast quantities of pesticides typically needed to protect the berries from bugs, consumer advocates say, they’re among the least-sustainable crops. And because their season is short but consumers clamor for them year-round, they’re frequently shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles before reaching the produce aisle.
The biggest concern strawberry growers have is, ‘How do I transport my berries long distances to make sure that they look good on the store shelf, and how do I make sure they can resist the environmental conditions and the pest conditions as they’re growing?’ Fain says. These aren’t issues that we face.
Bowery isn’t the first vertical farm to grow strawberries. It’s not even the first in Kearny. Oishii, a rival indoor agriculture startup, has been growing the fruit there since 2018 and is looking to add melons, peppers, and tomatoes. The company supplies chefs and consumers with succulent strawberries called Omakase, re-created from samples that co-founder Hiroki Koga brought from the Japanese Alps in a suitcase.
I anticipate there will be multiple companies that will follow our trail, Koga says. The good thing is that we are growing a special Japanese varietal that will continue to differentiate us.
Vertical farms shouldn’t replace traditional farming, Andrés says, but they can be a complement that can help underserved communities in places such as Haiti and India. He says building these kind of facilities in disaster-prone areas will make them more resilient in the event of a hurricane, earthquake, or other calamity, helping amplify the efforts of groups such as World Central Kitchen.
This gives me the opportunity to really understand the possibilities that we have in the years ahead to give food to the world, Andrés says. We’re going to see facilities like this in every major city across the world, period.
It’s unlikely that those farms will be providing strawberries to impoverished communities unless Bowery can bring down the cost. The company will sell two varieties—garden and “wild”—in 8-ounce packages for $15, though that’s a bargain compared with Oishii’s, which run $50 for a box of eight. Initially, Bowery’s berries will be available in limited release in New York at posh retailers such as Eataly and high-end restaurants like Craft from Top Chef star Tom Colicchio.
For now, Andrés is more interested in the berries’ flavor and consistency. The garden variety, large and a lush red, looks like the winner of the strawberry beauty contest: firm and with a sweet perfumy flavor. And the wild berries? Grown hydroponically, behind locked doors with no natural sunlight and pollinated by bees brought in for the job, they’re about as wild as zoo animals. They’re also a more uniform red and about 10 times bigger than true wild ones—which are typically about the size of a blueberry if you’re lucky enough to come across a bush on a sun-dappled meadow. In fact, Bowery’s wild version looks a lot like a regular strawberry but has the concentrated jamlike sweetness of forest-grown fruit.
We have this romanticism, which is good to have, of strawberries and sun in the middle of the summer. And there’s plenty of space for that, Andrés says. But now this one comes from a place that looks like a factory. It is very tech, but it’s real, too.