Irving Fain is equal parts optimist and critic. As the founder and CEO of Bowery Farming, his excitement for the future of agriculture is contagious, and his relentless push to make food production more sustainable has led to advances in vertical indoor farming. We recently spent an afternoon together talking about how Bowery Farming is reshaping agriculture and trading perspectives on where the industry is headed.
Irving didn't start out in agriculture; he began his career in investment banking and venture capital before getting into digital marketing by co-founding CrowdTwist, a loyalty and analytics firm. Later, as he was looking to build a new company, Irving became interested in the environmental impact of traditional farming and food distribution practices. He decided to put his energy into redesigning food production as a positive force for both cities and the environment. "Many people may not know that agriculture is the largest consumer of resources globally by a wide margin, compared to any other industry," he said. "Every year, 70% of the world's water goes to agriculture. Every year, in the U.S. we put about a billion pounds of pesticides down. Globally, that number is closer to six billion pounds. Those chemicals are not only in the water supply; they're really eroding the nutritional value of the soil that we rely on, and they're on the food we eat."
The problem to solve was a mix of science, robotics, and logistics: "'How do you get fresh food to urban environments, and how do you do it in a way that's more efficient and more sustainable?'" Irving focused on regional produce supply, aiming to develop a system flexible enough to scale as the population grows, and simple enough to give consumers transparency about their food supply.
“If you can’t give yourself a thousand reasons why what you’re building isn’t going to work, you’re not working hard enough.”
Five years after opening its first farm in New Jersey, Bowery Farming is now the largest indoor farming company in the U.S. Its outlets are located close to the cities they serve and use its proprietary BoweryOS, which integrates software, hardware, sensors, computer vision systems, machine learning models, and robotics to orchestrate and automate the entire operation. The OS assures that Bowery Farming crops get exactly what they need when they need it, with unparalleled food safety and traceability.
"We took a very analytical approach to Bowery Farming from the start," Irving remembers. That dedication to analytics has made its output 100 times more productive than a square foot of traditional farmland. The produce is pesticide-free, requiring only a fraction of the water and land usually needed. Bowery Farming now serves more than 680 supermarkets and specialty stores, as well as online grocery delivery services.
I asked Irving what advice he has for entrepreneurs thinking about a space that may be new to them. He believes that while naivete may enable an entrepreneur to act boldly, it's also essential to listen to those who have been in the space for a long time. "There are always people who are going to believe in what you're doing, and there are likely going to be people who don't think what you're doing is going to work. You're well served to spend equal time and energy understanding both."