Hacking lettuce for taste and profit

The scent is the first thing you notice,” Henry Sztul, Bowery Farming’s chief science officer, exclaims. “Does it have that odor?” As you approach Farm Zero, you are confronted with a visceral sensory memory, a Proustian moment that overtakes the senses after years of living in a big city. It smells like greenhouses and grows rooms: vibrant, fresh, and a stark contrast to the world outside the facility in Kearny, New Jersey. Years of innovations in indoor farming have allowed leafy greens to be cultivated at ever-larger scales — and, finally, at a profit.

My mind is racing with thoughts about climate change and the promise of sustainable vertical farming as I stroll around Bowery Farming’s three working vertical farms and research buildings. Yet, when it comes down to it, the company’s — and the industries — success will be determined by the taste and, yes, the smell.

We are dressed in hairnets and cleanroom coveralls. The bottoms of our shoes are still moist from standing in the cleaning solution, so we have taken off our watches and jewelry. “We have a completely contained atmosphere here,” Sztul explains. “Temperature, humidity, CO2, water flow, nutrients, and light levels are all under our control.” When I mention light levels, I’m referring to the color spectrum, light intensity, photoperiod, and day/night cycles.”

Hacking lettuce for taste and profit

Inventing produce, in contrast to standard software goods, is a completely different undertaking. Changes in Bowery’s vertical farm’s inputs can result in drastically diverse taste profiles in the leafy greens it distributes. I will look at how the firm experiments at Farm Zero and what it calls Farm X, how it develops new product lines as it expands beyond leafy greens, and how it adapts farm work for the urban 21st century while scaling up at its modern Farm 1 production plant in the second half of this TC-1.

The fragrance is the first thing you notice, but it is the picture that sticks with you the most. The grow systems that give vertical farming its name are there in front of me. It is a scaffolding system, with lush greens tucked in lengthy trays and illuminated by dazzling LEDs. According to the company’s calculations, PVC pipe snakes up and down, carrying the water that cycles through the systems, saving 15 to 20 million gallons of water per farm each year over traditional farming.

This entire room is connected to a single closed irrigation system that distributes nutrient-rich water to all of the plants. Bowery claims that even water lost from natural plant sweat catch and recirculated back into the loop using their HVAC technology. The bright lights contrast sharply with the dreary industrial park outside, yet even within, the image is tough to reconcile. The little pods of bright green flora reside in what appears to be a laboratory setting, a weird mixture of natural and manmade that goes to the essence of what vertical farming aims to do — hacking 10,000 years of agricultural expertise.