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The future of farming: Local, high-tech -- and indoors

Growing food in warehouses rather than fields? That's exactly what Bowery Farms is doing in their facility.

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SarahTewHS2012urbanSuare01.jpg

Sarah Tew

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1 of 29 Sarah Tew/CNET

Bowery calls itself "the modern farming company." And with good reason: The company has combined technological advancements with the ethos of the local and organic food movements to create a modern farming style to meet the challenges of the future while growing what it calls the "purest produce possible."

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Bowery is housed in this nondescript warehouse on the shores of the Hackensack River in Kearny, New Jersey -- nearby downtown Manhattan is visible on the horizon. Inside, modern farmers are growing 100 times more food than they could on a similar size plot of land in an agrarian landscape.

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You'd never guess there was a fully functioning farm on the other side of this door.

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Workers change into their uniforms before entering. Even as a guest, I had to don a full-body Tyvek suit and a hairnet. It's a far cry from the jeans and muddy boots you'd expect on a standard farm.

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5 of 29 Sarah Tew/CNET

Irving Fain, co-founder and CEO of Bowery, discussed the mission of the farm with me. He and his co-founders raised over $7.5 million in funding for the company.

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Don't forget to clean the bottom of your shoes in the "boot wash" station on your way in.

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One of the big efficiencies of Bowery's indoor farming approach is this multilevel growing environment.

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Fain introduced me to his team--this facility only needs a handful of "modern farmers" employed to handle the day-to-day operations. Most of the irrigation and lighting is automated.

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9 of 29 Sarah Tew/CNET

I actually got to taste some of their finished products. To demonstrate their ability to control flavor, Irving handed me a few experimental greens with a wasabi-flavored kick that are currently in development and not yet available to purchase.

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10 of 29 Sarah Tew/CNET

Here we see Bill Miller, left, and Katie Morich, right, sowing new seeds into soil.

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The plants are grown in soil-like mediums, including a substrate called peat, to emulate the environment needed to germinate a seed.

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In later stages, plants are grown in a nutrient-rich solution that replaces the soil entirely. Each tray of greens is numbered and tracked through the course of its growth in the shelving-apparatus that makes up the bulk of the facility.

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Mmm, basil! Indoor farming methods also offer enhanced flavor control.

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Fain explains, "There are various stresses that have an impact on the flavor profile of a crop. Using "Bowery OS" [the company's name for its customized software], we can highlight different flavor profiles by tweaking certain variables, including the intensity of light, the amount of light and the nutrients a plant receives."

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Farmers track the trays' progress through software they can use on a tablet as they walk around working with the plants.

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Mmmm, butterhead lettuce!

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To track progress and make improvements to their techniques based on the results of their work, plants are photographed and catalogued at various stages.

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Tyler Jensen earned his degree in controlled environmental agriculture from the University of Arizona. Here, he is monitoring the farm's automated systems.

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Plants at later stages are held equal distances apart in simple. light styrofoam trays that can be moved around easily. Not to worry -- they wash and reuse the trays!

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Agricultural scientist Tara O'Heir takes a closer look at some greens that are nearly ready to harvest.

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A loupe provides a closer look.

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In terms of the benefits, saving water is a big one. According to Fain, "Indoor growing methods save 95 percent of the water [used in] traditional farming because we use an automated irrigation system that can measure and maintain optimal levels of water to support plant growth, and we recycle the water that's left over."

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The enhanced productivity comes down to several factors. "While vertical stacking contributes to increased productivity, we are also able to grow many crops twice as fast as the field, we grow many more crop cycles per year than the field, and we grow more yield per crop cycles than the field as well."

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I told you they wash and re-use the trays!

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Once harvested, greens are brought to be packed and shipped.

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Always be tracking! A tray's yield gets weighed in after harvest. After packing, these greens could be on their way to grocery stores or restaurants in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.

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Tara gives a thumbs-up after sampling the harvest. Bowery produce is grown without any pesticides, and they refer to it as "post-organic." To unpack that, Fain explains, "The USDA's organic standards were written at a time when the technology that's available today simply didn't exist. Bowery products are grown with absolutely zero chemicals in a completely controlled environment to guarantee the freshest and purest produce imaginable."

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Because food can be grown like this indoors anywhere, greens can go from harvest to shelf or restaurants on the very same day. You can find Bowery's packs of Butterhead Lettuce, Arugula, Baby Kale, Kale Mix, Basil, and the Bowery Mix in Whole Foods' store in Newark New Jersey, and in Foragers Market in New York City.

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What's better than fresh greens you grew yourself? Workplace benefits include free salad for lunch!

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