He’s flown boxes of aid into Gaza, funded struggling restaurants at the height of the pandemic, and in yet another bid to feed the hungry, chef José Andrés has put his face behind what he calls “the future of farming.”

On Wednesday, the culinary celebrity toured Bowery Farming, the largest vertical farming company in the country, to congratulate the business as it celebrates four years in Nottingham. The Maryland farming operation is the corporation’s second-largest venture, with layers of crops from strawberries to spinach growing in conditions managed by company software.

Vertical farming practices have grown in popularity within the last five years, especially in cities where space for traditional farms doesn’t not exist, with some calling it a potential solution to food insecurity.

“Can you think of a better partner than José Andrés?” asked Colin O’Neil, head of public policy for Bowery Farming.

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The long-time investor has been declared the farm’s “culinary coach” offering biting advice on the flavor profile of lettuce strains, such as the warehouse’s wasabi arugula or lemon basil.

“We need big ecosystems to keep feeding America and the world,” Andrés told The Baltimore Banner as he left the facility. “[This] is how we’re going to be more sustainable and precise in the way we will feed Maryland.”

Gov. Wes Moore and chef Jose Andres congratulated Bowery Farming, the largest vertical farming company in the country, on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, for four years of production in Nottingham.
Gov. Wes Moore and chef José Andrés congratulated Bowery Farming, the largest vertical farming company in the country, on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, for four years of production in Nottingham. (Eric Thompson)

Since Bowery Farming came to market in 2016, the business has served more than 2,600 grocery stores and donated crops through a partnership with the Maryland Food Bank. The company has made significant investments in their warehouses’ technology, with irrigation, lighting, HVAC and climate-controlled settings that allow them to produce 150 times more than traditional agriculture, according to a spokeswoman for the business.

The corporation is believed to be part of the frontier of vertical farming, otherwise seen as a means of producing food that would be less affected by volatile climate or financial shocks seen during the pandemic, according to founder and CEO Irving Fain. Their warehouse only uses renewable energy and requires 90% less water than a regular farm.

Fain anticipates more grocery aisles lined with products created in warehouses like his.

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Even the nutrition of the food can be monitored by Bowery Farming technology. A cooperative agreement funded by the U.S Department of Agriculture has allowed state and local governments to deliver food from Bowery Farming to schools and food banks within 400 miles, according to Jenny Moffit, a spokeswoman for the federal department.

Gov. Wes Moore, who attended the gathering alongside Moffit and Fain, stopped to speak with farmers throughout his visit, surprised by the number of West Baltimoreans interested in agriculture. He discussed the Nottingham warehouse’s ability to employ city residents and said he aims to incentivize farming in every part of the state.

Last year, Baltimore City Council passed an Urban Agriculture Property Tax Credit, providing a 90% tax break to farmers producing $5,000 worth of crops annually, according to a Baltimore magazine story. Moore declined to say whether a tax credit or similar incentive would be worth investigating to support Maryland vertical farming in the future.

A small urban farming group within the Maryland Department of Agriculture is working to explore grants and pre-existing programs to support the more than a dozen urban farms already working in Baltimore on a much smaller scale, according to Kevin Atticks, secretary for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. He believes urban farming could help remedy the city’s food deserts, and with the support of policymakers, turn into operations reminiscent of Bowery Farming.

“The vacant warehouses can be turned into systems much like this with the proper funding and tax incentives and it’s going to be our goal to push for those,” he said.

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But that aspiration appears lofty to Denzel Mitchell Jr., executive director of the Farm Alliance, which advocates for farms in the area. He called Bowery Farming’s methods of food production “incredibly expensive” and “resource extractive,” as well as unattainable for the average working-class grower.

Scaling such an operation requires millions of dollars, tons of technology and different expertise, he said, instead encouraging people to donate to urban agriculture programs like those at the Farm Alliance of Baltimore.

When asked about the expenses, Moore did not appear deterred.

“Hunger is very expensive too,” he said.

This story has been updated to correct the name of Bowery Farming’s head of public policy.

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