Sun, Jul 01, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Amazon automation veteran finds his inner farmer

By Olivia Zaleski  /  Bloomberg

Plenty Inc production manager Emy Kelty, left, and senior grower Molly Kreykes scan and monitor plants growing on towers in the grow room at the company’s office in South San Francisco on Jan. 18. More than 30 high-tech companies from around the world hope to turn indoor farming into a major future food source.

Photo: AP

Bowery Farming Inc, an agriculture start-up that is less than two years old, got a big boost last month when it poached Brian Donato, a veteran of Inc’s automation efforts.

Donato is to oversee Bowery’s indoor farm in Kearny, New Jersey, a forgotten industrial enclave once famous for building warships.

There, Bowery grows leafy greens in a computerized labyrinth of sensor-rich trays that monitor and react to humidity, light and carbon dioxide.

Farmers work alongside the crates, which automatically adjust inputs, like light and temperature.

The system, which resembles a giant game of three-dimensional Tetris, is designed to grow lettuce and herbs with limited water and no pesticides.

During his seven years at Amazon, Donato managed Amazon fulfillment centers, the massive distribution hubs where humans and robots pick, pack and assemble hundreds of thousands of orders, each day, for delivery.

He most recently ran Amazon Home Services, which provides cleaners, carpenters and more to harried homeowners. Before that he directed operations for the Amazon Fresh and Pantry food delivery services.

Bowery’s heavily automated process reminds Donato of the fulfillment systems he implemented at Amazon, where he was part of the team that integrated robots into the human workforce.

“We had to teach people to care for the automation and to work with it,” he said.

Bowery’s indoor farm is controlled by proprietary software called BoweryOS. It uses a web of cameras and sensors to automatically tinker with inputs, like air flow, that help plants flourish.

Bowery said one square meter of its indoor farm is 100 times more productive, and less wasteful, than an equivalent plot of arable land.

Rival indoor farms make similar claims.

Besides running the existing farm, Donato is to help Bowery Farming set up automated facilities on the outskirts of cities.

This summer, he is to launch Bowery’s second grow house; it is not far from the current operation in Kearny and 30 times the size of the original farm.

The UN has said food production will need to double in the next three decades to feed the planet’s swelling population. Bowery and a handful of other vertical farming start-ups aim to cash in on this dire situation by building massive grow houses in and on the outskirts of cities.

Growing near cities could prove lucrative.

The US imports 35 percent of fruits and vegetables, according to research conducted last year by Bain & Co.

Leafy greens, mostly grown in California and Arizona, travel an average of 3,200km before reaching most urban supermarkets.

Some critics have said the electricity required to run indoor farms negates the potential transportation savings.

“You’re using power to produce electricity to replace the sun,” said Michael Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University.

Bowery Farming does not use renewable energy to power its farm. So far, Bowery sells its own brand of kale, arugula, butter lettuce and herbs to Whole Foods and a few restaurants. The greens are only available in New York City.

The technology is there to produce herbs and lettuces and tomatoes, Hamm said. “But you need more than greens to feed a city.”

Vertical farming has yet to accommodate heartier crops, such as wheat, corn, berries and root vegetables, such as carrots, at scale, he said.

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