Indoor Farms Are Expanding Way Beyond Leafy Greens
Strawberries, mushrooms, and tomatoes are unlocking a new potential.
When urban, indoor farming first came onto the scene in the early 2000s, things got really exciting. The world’s first commercial vertical farm—that is, an indoor facility in which crops are planted in vertically stacked layers—arrived in Singapore. Gotham Greens opened a greenhouse on top of a Brooklyn Whole Foods. Many other farms followed suit, pioneering new technologies for gardening without soil, from aeroponics to aquaponics (more on that later).
There was a frenetic energy, an ambitious desire to reimagine the global food system and solve food insecurity. And, thankfully, there still is. But when we think about this style of farming, we tend to think only of produce like butterhead lettuce, basil, or micro kale—leafy greens that certainly represent a triumph of eco-innovation, but, in truth, will only get us so far. A new lot of indoor farms, however, has been expanding to other crops.
In February 2020, Ohio-based 80 Acres Farms installed a grow module right outside the Guggenheim Museum. The neon pink, hermetically sealed installation, which was part of the Countryside, The Future exhibition, became a site for tomato growth on one of the busiest streets in New York City.
The exhibition, which examined how environmental factors altered landscapes around the world, was forced to close due to COVID, but the vegetable growth carried on. As pedestrians strolled by the empty museum, they were able to peer into a window of cherry tomatoes vining under controlled conditions—a food supply that would later be donated to City Harvest.
In some ways, it was bad timing. The Hamilton, Ohio farm, which is powered by Infinite Acres technology, hoped to make the most of the endeavor, doing visits at the site and educating schools, but lockdown made this impossible. On the other hand, passersby were able to see firsthand what a self-sufficient, locally operated farm could do, at the precise moment in which resources became scarce.
“I talked to someone in Hamilton the other day who said, ‘I just want you to know that at the height of COVID, as supply chains were breaking down, your greens were the most consistent ones at the supermarket,’” says Jed Portman, communications manager at 80 Acres Farms.
Since 2015, 80 Acres has been growing leafy greens hydroponically—meaning within a nutrient-rich solution rather than soil—using AI and robots to do the heavy lifting. A couple years later, the farm became a leader of tomato growth, eventually adding cucumbers and, most recently, strawberries, which they hope to make available commercially by the summer.
Leafy greens are well suited for automated crop handling. Natasha Snellens, director of strategic marketing at Infinite Acres, explains how, when you complete a growth cycle for leafy greens, you pretty much harvest the plant in its entirety, then start from scratch. Tomatoes, on the other hand, present a challenge, as they require several harvests from the same plant.
“If you want to harvest tomatoes automatically, you need very sophisticated vision technology to make sure that you are harvesting at the right time and are not damaging the rest of the crop,” she says. And that costs money.
Vertical farming is a very capital-intensive industry—one of the many reasons farms have taken their time moving beyond baby spinach. “Leafy greens are the crop that makes, let’s say, per square foot, the highest profitability,” Snellens says.
Last year, mushroom company Smallhold announced a $25 million Series A investment. The Brooklyn-based farm started selling specialty mushrooms—everything from the clustered blue oyster to the feathery maitake—in 2017.
“Mushrooms can feed the planet,” says Andrew Carter, co-founder and CEO of Smallhold. “They’re a meaningful amount of calories. They lend themselves to growing vertically in controlled environments. And they’re extremely exciting for consumers.”
The company has developed its own proprietary control system that captures hundreds of thousands of data points per day, running climate recipes for mushroom growth.
The substrates, or mushroom-growing materials, are made from byproducts of industrial processes—like sawdust or coffee grounds—and result in a certified organic product that is then sold to retailers like Whole Foods.
But the most exciting aspect of Smallhold’s mission is its emphasis on locality. While the Brooklyn Macrofarm is the mainstay, the company’s technology is distributed throughout partner restaurants, grocery stores, and markets. Walk into Maison Yaki, for example, and you’ll find an automated, custom Minifarm sitting above the counter of the Brooklyn yakitori restaurant. Bundles of fresh funghi hang out in blue light boxes like modern lobster tanks.
Smallhold reflects the potential for indoor farms to be built anywhere around the world, which means less travel for products. Not only does this local model help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it also leads to better quality food.
Last month, Bowery Farming, which currently has locations in Kearny, New Jersey, and Nottingham, Maryland, added strawberries to its roster of products, which, until this launch, had been composed entirely of leafy greens and herbs. Like 80 Acres, the company also uses AI technology to aid in vertical plant growth.
The strawberries were released in a limited edition duo pack—the Garden Berry and the Wild Berry. The cultivars, or plants bred for desired traits, were narrowed down by experts in sensory science, then paired side by side to offer a unique tasting experience.
“Because we grow locally, we’re able to harvest our berries when they’re ripe versus having to harvest them a few days before so that we can ship them across the country,” says Julia Cohen, head of commercial product and innovation at Bowery Farming.
Portman, of 80 Acres, shares the same outlook. “We can get produce from farm to store in 48 hours or less,” he says. “Rather than growing for durability, we can grow for flavor, we can grow for aroma, we can grow for consumer experience. We can focus on growing the perfect tomato—not the one most likely to survive a 1,200-mile trip across the country.”
Of course, pollination presents a whole other challenge. You can’t grow a tomato or strawberry using the same system used to grow lettuce. Bowery has spent years developing the right conditions.
“We’re growing a fruit, so that means, first, we have to grow the crop and produce the vegetative leaves that are going to support the development of the berry,” explains Susan MacIsaac, senior vice president of AgScience at Bowery Farming. “Then they have to flower. Those flowers have to be pollinated by bees, allowing the fruit to sprout and mature into the beautiful strawberries that we enjoy.”
She continues, “We nurture those bees just like we do our plants. We have special homes for them. We monitor the environmental conditions to cater to what they like. Then they fly around from flower to flower and do their work.”
Bowery’s strawberries, which are sold at select NYC retailers like Eataly, come at a higher price point. Each duo pack is $15, a price Cohen believes is a fair bargain for an experiential tasting. Compared to a $50 box of Omakase berries, sold by indoor farming company, Oishii, the tag feels rather accessible.
Cohen hopes that, over time, Bowery will be able to increase its scale and offer products at a lower price point. Snellens understands this high-end release model, comparing it to the start of Tesla. “The reason they started with such an expensive car was because it provided them with capital to further develop their products and ensure that they will make it to mass production,” she says.
80 Acres has already achieved this level of distribution, selling to more than 300 Kroger stores. “We’re the only major vertical farming company headquartered in the Midwest,” Portman says. “And I don't mean to play too much into regional stereotypes, but accessibility is really important to us.”
While the prices of these products vary, one fact remains: You’re guaranteed a premium variety. Upon visiting various fields and testing different strawberry types, the team at Bowery quickly realized that there was a whole world of strawberry nuance that most consumers don’t get to experience.
“A strawberry can have that quintessential summer taste,” says Cohen. “Or it can taste a little bit different—almost a little mischievous—still really sweet, but much more concentrated, poppy, and unique.”
Diversity is also made possible by the mere fact that the crop is grown indoors. “Some of the berry varieties that we’re growing have been trialed by outdoor growers and haven’t been selected because they don’t grow as well in the kind of variable conditions that you might experience outdoors,” Cohen adds.
Once you select a desired cultivar within a controlled environment, you can produce a berry or tomato with a similar sensory profile time after time, no matter the season. And this quality is strengthened by the fact that you don’t have to rely on pesticides.
“There’s a protection from any sort of adverse stress: high temperatures, cold days, periods of time without water. Our crops don’t ever experience those types of conditions, which can impact the quality of the berry that’s produced,” MacIsaac explains. You don’t even need to wash the berries before consumption.
But perhaps the greatest feat of indoor farms is their dedication to using less resources. Both Bowery Farming and 80 Acres, for example, use less water. In an open field scenario, you have to supply the plant with a great deal of water, because only part of it will be taken up by the plant—the rest will go to the soil.
Therefore, it’s difficult to specifically add the amount of water the plant needs. “But in an indoor farm, every drop of water that’s added to the plant is either taken up by the plant and used to grow, or returned to the system and recycled,” Snellen says. “The only drop of water that exits our farm, you could say, is the one that is taken up by the plant—for instance, the crispness in the lettuce and the juice in the tomato.”
Smallhold’s Macrofarm in Brooklyn forgoes the LED-powered energy used to imitate the sun at most vertical farms. The mushrooms do not go through photosynthesis, requiring only a specific spectrum of light to aid growth. “Mycelium reacts to the light and it tells it to fruit, but it’s getting all of its food from the substrate, which is made up of waste streams from the timber industry,” Carter explains.
And because Smallhold ships to closer locations, the company is able to be more mindful about the materials used for their packaging, which is fully compostable. The company, in its upward trajectory, plans to open another Macrofarm in Los Angeles later this year.
For its part, 80 Acres is currently building a 200,000-square-foot farm in Boone County, Kentucky, that will more than double its total output when fully operational. “With our farms, we are freeing up prime agricultural land for other uses,” Portman adds. The company is also exploring other berry varieties, in partnership with the University of Arkansas.
Bowery is gearing up to open a new commercial farm in a former Bethlehem Steel brownfield in May, transforming a non-arable industrial site in Pennsylvania into a modern farmland—its most technologically advanced facility to date. MacIsaac says the company hopes to expand to other crops across the produce aisle.
Snellens believes advancements in AgTech will never replace traditional farming, but they do provide part of the solution. “We can fill the gaps that occur because of urbanization, because of supply chain issues due to COVID, or weather induced problems,” she says.
Carter adds: “It’s an efficient way of growing in an uncertain future.”