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Recent Alumnus Joins Team Working to Revolutionize Agriculture

11.1.17

“I've always been passionate about food -- cooking it and eating it,” asserted Ben Niewood ’10.

That’s wonderful, because Ben and Aliza (Shapiro) Niewood ’10 just moved to New York to start careers in the food industry – Aliza at Hello Fresh, a meal kit delivery company, and Ben at “an amazing modern farming company called Bowery Farming.”

Bowery is “growing the purest produce imaginable by revolutionizing agriculture,” Ben continued. “By combining the benefits of the best local farms with advances made possible by technology, our indoor farms create the ideal conditions to grow post-organic produce, and good, fresh produce is the easiest way to effortlessly make food taste better.”

The Manhattan company is operating its first farm, and is building a second. “We grow everything hydroponically in a warehouse,” Ben explained. “All of the plants grow in little plugs made of a synthetic, dirt-like substance. The plugs sit in Styrofoam rafts that float on top of a large tray of water. We put nutrients into the water and grow the plants under LED lights.”

“Because we grow indoors in a controlled environment, we can vary the temperature, humidity, CO2, and other environmental variables to get perfect growing conditions for every crop. Because we are inside, we can also ensure that there are no bugs in the lettuce without using any pesticides.” He added, “That's particularly beneficial for us kosher keepers.” Bowery produce is available at some Whole Foods and Foragers stores in the Tri-State area.

The company uses a proprietary software system, vision systems, automation technology, and machine learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth, Ben said. “Because we control the entire process from seed to store, the Bowery farm uses 95 percent less water, and is exponentially more productive on the same footprint of land than traditional agriculture.”

Bowery has raised almost $28 million in venture capital and is backed by established leaders and innovators in the food industry.

 “Bowery's mission isn't just to grow fresh produce,” Ben said. “Our long-term goal is to use our farms to help deal with the world's impending food crisis. The world's population is going to explode over the next 30-40 years. With more people moving to densely-populated urban areas, growing more produce close to cities is the only cost- and energy-effective way to feed everyone in the cities; traditional farming can’t do that.”

Ben learned for a year at Yeshivat Orayta before matriculating at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2015. He was working as a product design engineer at Nest in San Francisco when he spotted the opportunity at Bowery on an MIT alumni jobs list.

He is one of two mechanical engineers, “working mostly on systems engineering. We design the systems -- lighting, irrigation, and HVAC -- that help the plants grow.” He not only runs experiments, takes measurements, and builds new prototype systems, but also helps harvest the day’s lettuce haul. “We're focused on building our next farm, which will be much larger. After that we'll look for new cities in the U.S. to build farms near, and we eventually want to have at least one Bowery farm next to every major city in the world.”

“In America, our food is consumed so far from its source that many people don't understand the connection between farming and food,” Ben observed. “For contrast, in many of the other countries Aliza and I have visited, especially in Asia, people buy far more produce from small markets whose farms are just outside the city they live in. And food is central to any culture; the best part of traveling, and the best way to experience any new culture, is to try the food.”

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