How indoor farming is shaping the future of the agriculture and curbing climate change

Irving Fain - Bowery Farming Founder & CEO joins Yahoo Finance’s On The Move panel to discuss how the vertical farming company has expanded into more than 650 U.S. stores as well as break down how consumer demands are changing our food systems.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: Farming revolution under the way. Sustainable farming, but the kind of farming that takes place indoors and on rooftops. To talk about this, we bring in Irving Fain. He's Bowery Farming founder and CEO.

Years ago, I got to see an indoor marijuana farm, essentially, where they grew everything in ground coconut shell, but it was incredibly efficient the way the nutrients and the water were recycled. And I would imagine that's part of what you do.


But what's even cooler about this is, you're already supplying, what, is it 600 plus stores in the tri-state area with your produce. So how does someone who's got their start in software and finance go into farming?

IRVING FAIN: Yeah, it's a good question, Adam. Thanks for having me. I think I've been a believer since I was a young kid that the technology and the innovation economy could be used to solve hard problems and important problems.

And when you look at what's happening with the climate crisis right now, you look at the fires in California, you look at the storms we've been seeing, you look at just the droughts we've been going through for the last decade plus, there is no greater cause of climate harm than agriculture. It is the largest consumer of resources globally. 70% of the world's water goes to ag every year. And we use about 6 billion pounds of pesticides annually across the world.

And so, in the last 40 years alone, we've lost 30% of all of our arable farmlands. And you look at the fact that the world population is increasing. We need more food to feed that growing population. And we are urbanizing at a faster and faster rate. I just got really obsessed with this question of, how do you get fresh food to urban environments, and how do you do that more efficiently and more sustainably?

JULIE HYMAN: Irving, it's Julie here. Thank you for joining us. You know, this has seemed to be a trend. We spoke with a company recently that was going public through a SPAC that was a big indoor farming company. That person, too, was not necessarily a farmer, right?

As Adam mentioned, you're from a banking and tech background. And so I'm curious, is the farming industry, so to speak, on board? We have talked a lot on this show about how family farms are dying, in many cases. The economics are really tough there. So I'm wondering how much this new part of the industry is incorporating the old, and how much those people might be on board?

IRVING FAIN: Yeah, you know, I think what's so exciting to see right now, Julie, is just the fact that technology is penetrating all areas of agriculture right now. So you're seeing precision agriculture on the farms. So we can give crops much more precise amounts of water or fertilizers versus just dumping from planes or spreaders, like you can see on the photo right now.

You're seeing use of satellite imagery and drone imagery. So I think when you look at innovation in agriculture, we've got to look at indoor farming as a part of a larger puzzle. We are a piece of this puzzle, a very important piece of it because the fresh produce industry is so critical.

But in order to solve a problem where agriculture is consuming so many of these resources, where our climate is being stretched in the way that it is, we're going to need cooperation from outdoor farmers and indoor farmers alike.

MELODY HAHM: And Irving, I think the company that Julie was mentioning was AppHarvest. Also news today that SoftBank is leading a $140 million funding round for Plenty, of course, your counterpart there. And actually, Driscoll's, the berry company, is going to be an investor.

I want to think about the idea of vertical farming. Speaking with folks who are in very saturated cities or very cosmopolitan areas, as I understand it, vertical farming was another way to provide fresh fruits, fresh veggies to perhaps lower income students, many of whom depended on their schools for breakfast, lunch, and even dinner sometimes.

How have you been navigating this space, if at all? And what's your vision there in allowing a lot of these fresh produce items to reach the masses and perhaps those who wouldn't be able to afford some fresh things at Whole Foods?

IRVING FAIN: Yeah, no, it's a great question, Melody. And so, you know, at Bowery, we're building the modern farming company. And, you know, we're really proud to be the largest indoor vertical farming company in the United States right now. And we are building smart farms that are close to the cities that we're serving. And we really take the responsibility of the community members seriously.

And so that, for us, means a number of things. We're engaging with nonprofit partners in the mid-Atlantic, where we are, as well as in the tri-state area. We're actually the largest donation partner for fresh produce in the Maryland Food Bank right now.

We're actually selling wholesale product to the DC Central Kitchen Healthy Corners Program right now. And what they then do is they take that produce and they bring it into corner stores in food deserts across the Baltimore and the DC area. And they sell that at a subsidized price inside coolers to get fresh, healthy produce to consumers who may have a difficult time achieving that.

That's a really critical piece, but also, we have just built Bowery under the belief that we want to democratize access to high quality fresh food. Everybody should be able to eat great produce. And the produce we're growing is, it is like the produce you remember from your grandparents' garden.

And so you can find Bowery products in everywhere from a Whole Foods or a Giant, all the way to retailers like Walmart and then online retailers as well. And so we really believe in spreading the access to what we're growing at Bowery.

ADAM SHAPIRO: I am curious, because I think a lot of people, there's a passion about what you're doing with this farming revolution. But it's all about yield when you talk about crops. So can you give us a perspective of where the indoor farming market stands with its yield? And potentially, we're talking about feeding, at least this country, with things that are grown in this manner, or is that really a pipe dream?

IRVING FAIN: No it's the right question to ask. I think it's one of the reasons why, at Bowery, we've invested really heavily in the technology side of what we're building. And so, we're building warehouse scale indoor farms. We stack our crops from the floor to the ceiling. And we grow under lights that mimic the spectrum of the sun.

And so we can grow year round, independent of weather and seasonality. It is pesticide free, protected produce. We're 100 times plus more productive than a square foot of farmland. And we use only a fraction of water compared to traditional agriculture. And what really makes that possible is innovation that we've been driving in robotics and automation, as well as innovation around the software side.

So we've built something called the Bowery OS, Adam, which is, it's the brains of our farm. It's a proprietary system, and it uses software, computer vision, machine learning to both monitor and manage our crops to ensure they're getting exactly what they need, when they need it. They're as flavorful as possible. And they're harvested at that peak yield and peak freshness.

So it really is where technology marries traditional growing and traditional agriculture, which comes together. And it creates an enormous opportunity. I mean from our view, this is a $100 billion a year opportunity in the US and probably about a trillion dollar a year opportunity globally.

And that's not for every crop. We don't look at staple crops, for instance, corn and wheat and soy, as areas that we're necessarily focused in today. Could you do that eventually? You know, technology has a nice way of surprising us. But that's not something where we're focused or counting on right now. And you don't need that to build a big business.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Look, I tried to grow tomatoes on the 18th floor, the terrace out here. And I refer to them as the toxic tomatoes because it was a disaster. I want to thank you for joining us, Irving Fain, Bowery Farming founder and CEO.