Bowery Vertical Growing Strawberries Go on Sale in New York

Bowery Farming Chief Commercial Officer Cathy Sivell holds two different varieties of strawberries grown by the vertical farming company on its farm in Kearney, New Jersey. The company is debuting berries as part of a limited edition as it goes beyond leafy greens.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

Kearney, New Jersey. Inside a warehouse in this factory town near Newark, thousands of strawberries grow in rows under bright lights.

This is one of the research centers of Bowery Farming, and these berries are destined for a second life in the big city.

Starting Tuesday, shoppers will be able to buy fruit less than a dozen miles away at several gourmet grocers in New York City. They will become the main characters of dishes prepared by famous chefs in the best restaurants of the city.

Bowery will be selling limited edition strawberries for the first time. But the berries, which taste the same in midsummer and midwinter, are part of an ambitious effort to change the way fruits and vegetables are grown and the way Americans eat. Vertical farm crops are typically planted in floor-to-ceiling rows in buildings near urban centers. This translates into higher yields of fresher, higher quality produce delivered to urban grocery stores days after harvest.

Vertical farming companies have used a technological approach to produce lettuce and greens. Now they are counting on strawberries and other crops to win a larger share of grocers’ stalls and consumers’ stomachs. At first, the berries will be more expensive than the average in the supermarket. But housekeeping companies are hoping to scale up production and use automation to pick berries, which could drive prices down.

One of Bowery’s competitors, Plenty, said on Tuesday it plans to build an indoor strawberry farm to serve customers and retailers in the northeast with major berry grower Driscoll’s. Their rivals are venture startups AeroFarms, PlantLab and BrightFarms.

Christine Zimmermann-Lössl, chairman of the Vertical Farming Association, said companies need to prove they can grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to become a larger part of the food supply.

“You can’t feed the world with lettuce,” said Zimmermann, head of the Munich-based non-profit and human rights group. “No one can eat that much salad.”

Bowery also wants to make food taste better.

“Imagine having beautiful, fresh, flavorful strawberries in February,” said Susan Makaisak, Bowery’s senior vice president of agscience. “It really opens up a whole new way, a whole new world of food. I think we all know that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables, but they are often less than edible.”

On the Bowery’s indoor farms, arugula, baby oil and other greens grow in rows from floor to ceiling. The company also sells rotating offerings called “Farmer’s Choice” depending on the season.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

A new perspective on farming

Investors investing in agricultural technology companies at a time when the price and availability of food is a growing concern for retailers and consumers.

Inflation led to an increase in food prices by 7.9%. over the past 12 months, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released this month. The pandemic has left some grocery shelves empty and highlighted the complexity of the supply chain. In recent weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the risks associated with reliance on other countries for energy production or food production.

“Look at the last two years, the amount of disruption we all have to deal with in our daily lives,” said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas. “In the fresh food industry, we are very, very dependent on the climate and the free movement of goods around the world. It turns out that some of these supply chains may have been a little more vulnerable than anyone thought, and they are not. it’s hard to imagine that these things could get worse.”

With vertical farming, produce is grown without pesticides, with less water, and on farms that are just minutes away from consumers. This means fewer hours on the truck, which reduces fuel consumption and increases the likelihood that consumers will eat fresher food and waste less.

Proponents of vertical farming see it as a more sustainable way to increase food supplies for a growing global population, especially as climate change changes weather patterns.

Farms account for a tiny percentage of the produce Americans buy and eat, according to the USDA. This definition includes tomatoes and vegetables found in grocery stores, such as broccoli, lettuce, sweet corn, and carrots, but does not include corn that is fed to animals or becomes a food ingredient in products such as tortilla chips.

The total value of vegetables grown and sold in 2019 was about $18.9 billion. That said, the total value of vegetables grown under protection and sold — a category that includes greenhouses and plots grown under temporary cover — was approximately $702.5 million in 2019, according to the latest agricultural census available. Vertical farming is just part of that, and the federal government doesn’t specifically track it.

However, the fledgling industry has already received support from some of the biggest names in the food industry. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer by revenue, recently invested in Plenty and now stocks Bowery leafy greens in its stores.

Bowery’s investors include renowned chefs José Andrés, Tom Colicchio and David Barber.

On Singapore Airlines flights this spring, first and business class passengers flying from Newark and New York can buy bok choy and arugula to accompany their meals from AeroFarms, which grows them about 5 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport. The airline began purchasing products from AeroFarms in 2019.

A Singapore Airlines spokesperson said the airline plans to announce deals with other vertical farms later this year for flights from other major US airports. The airline, which operates some of the longest flights in the world, is trying to find ways to reduce its carbon footprint, including buying local food.

Bowery Farming will sell strawberries to several gourmet grocery stores in New York City. They will also star in desserts at some celebrity chefs’ restaurants.

Credit: Bowery Farming

Breaking into berries

Bowery grows strawberries in buildings that look like a mixture of a science lab and a large indoor garden. Agricultural specialists in lab coats, boots and hair nets check the harvest. Bright lighting, sophisticated watering systems, and rotating ventilation help create a stable growing environment that doesn’t change—even when it’s raining, sleet, and hot outside.

His research farm in New Jersey is located in Kearny, about 11 miles west of New York. She has another farm in Nottingham, Maryland near Baltimore. The company also has three new commercial farms in Atlanta, Dallas and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Berries are harder to grow than leafy greens. Lettuce leaves can be grown and harvested. Strawberries have to go through more stages: leaf development, flowering and transformation into a fruit that is harvested. This takes more time – and the help of bees, which are used to pollinate flowers.

McIsaac said Bowery narrowed down the varieties to select those that grow best indoors and have a pleasing texture and flavor.

He settled on two varieties, wild and garden berries, to be sold side by side in a package designed as an experience. Each package includes a description of the tasting notes, similar to what a consumer might read at a wine tasting or gourmet café.

Garden berries are a classic, with “a balance of sweetness and tartness,” McIsaac said. Wild berries are more distinct, she says, with floral and tropical notes.

They will be available at Eataly and Mercado Little Spain in New York, as well as at Colicchio’s Craft New York and Andres’, Lena and Spanish Diner. Strawberries will appear in other stores and restaurants later in the spring, the company said.

Each pack sells for the high price of $14.99 for 8 ounces.

However, Bowery has said it wants to expand its strawberry business to sell beyond gourmets to shoppers in regular grocery stores. His salads are sold by retailers such as Walmart owned by Amazon Whole Foods and Albertsons.

The company said the package is the first phase of its commercial rollout. “As we move into the scaling phase, our goal is to offer strawberries at a price and value that will open up scale without sacrificing flavor,” the statement said.

Bowery acquired Traptic last month. The company uses artificial intelligence and powerful cameras to detect crops at peak maturity and has robotic arms that can pick even fragile fruits like tomatoes and strawberries.

According to CEO Aram Kukutai, Plenty’s first dedicated strawberry farm will be operational by the end of 2023. The company, which works with Driscoll’s, hopes to sell its berries to grocers in early 2024, he said. He did not share a specific location.

The two companies formed a joint venture to develop and grow berries in 2020. This will mark the geographic expansion of Plenty, which only has commercial farms in California. So far, Plenty and Driscoll’s have grown strawberries at an indoor plant research center in Laramie, Wyoming, but have not sold them.

Bjorn of Driscoll’s said the North East is one of the company’s biggest berry markets, so it was a natural place to start. However, he said the approach would work well in other major markets such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Hong Kong, where consumers love berries but rely on expensive supplies from afar.

According to him, strawberries are the perfect puzzle for the vertical farming industry. The tender fruits grow in several locations, such as the coasts of California and Chile and the foothills of the French Alps. They rely on temperature fluctuations, such as cooler nights and warmer days, to get the right flavor and texture. If it is too hot or humid, the fruit becomes soft and loses its flavor.

“Indoors, every day would be perfect,” he said. So this is one of the possibilities.

– CNBC Leslie Josephs contributed to this story.

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