Last week we had the pleasure of attending the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA) in Abu Dhabi. While there we met with Caleb Harper and Emma Feshbach who are working on the MIT CityFARM: an indoor vertical farming lab bound to change the way we gather and share data in the controlled environment agriculture industry.
At the MIT CityFARM, we’re rediscovering MIT’s roots and inventing the future of agriculture using cutting edge engineering, big data, and network connectivity. With a planet home to 9.6 billion people by 2050
, our ability to grow food sustainably at scale will be essential to maintaining global prosperity.
Here is an interview with Emma Feshbach held at the end of the GFIA conference. Emma is a junior at MIT studying mechanical engineering and one of the researchers at the CityFARM.
Henry: Thanks so much for meeting with us. Can you tell us how you first got interested in urban agriculture and hydroponics?
Emma: I actually grew up growing food in my backyard when I was living in the bay area. I was used to having fresh produce and loved interacting with plants. When I came to MIT I began realizing how limited the availability of fresh produce was. When you don’t have a warmer climate throughout the year, you realize just how limited access to fresh produce can be and what inputs are needed to transport food to feed people in the wintertime here. I began asking myself how we could grow better food closer to home?
H: How did you get involved with urban agriculture at MIT?
E: I heard about the work that Caleb was doing at the MIT Media Lab and was intrigued by the challenge of data-driven agriculture that he wants to solve. I liked that he came from a farming background and was combining that traditional know-how with data and research. I am currently studying mechanical engineering and never thought that farming and engineering could collide in such a harmonious way. It seemed like a really exciting challenge to me! I saw a posting by Caleb recruiting UROPS (undergraduate research opportunities program) for the CityFARM project and was excited enough to apply for a research position there.
H: Nice. When did you start at the CityFARM?
E: I started back in September 2013 in what was an electrical closet part of the “Changing Places” lab which is where city car was developed and also where parametric modelling of cities is being done. The lab is all about understanding what the future of cities can be and the CityFARM is about what the future of farming in cities can be.
H: What is a normal day at the MIT CityFARM?
E: Definitely a lot of eating fresh plants! Currently we are growing kale, lettuces, and tomatoes. It is amazing to just come in and see them growing a little bit more every day.
H: What kinds of systems are you utilizing for your research?
E: Our current indoor farm has a raft-based hydroponic system and an aeroponic system. We are researching different types of artificial lighting that can be used, energy management, we also look at pump and dosing system for nutrients, control systems, and how can we use hybrid lighting systems (for example when integrating agriculture into facades). I am focusing more on the lighting challenge and how to mimic and optimize ambient light.
H: Tell us more about that and why your research matters. Why do we need to evolve beyond the indoor greenhouse lighting that exists now?
E: I think that its really interesting that the current lighting technology is moving towards trying to mimic natural light. What interests me is how we can move even beyond that and achieve levels of lighting for plants that can help them achieve their optimal production rate beyond what they experience outside. I am interested in discovering what is unknown about how plants absorb light and how to optimize that.
H: So you believe there might be something more optimal than natural sunlight?
E: That is one of my questions. I don’t know yet but that is what I would like to find out.
H: Tell us about your work on PAR sensors and why it matters?
E: PAR stands for photosynthetically active radiation. Essentially, we are using PAR, or Quantum sensors, to conduct a spectral analysis across our various grow beds so that we can understand their respective plant growth and correlate that with light absorption. These sensors help us understand how plants are absorbing light and some insight in how to optimize that.
H: How much does one of these sensors usually cost?
E: With the data monitoring they can be about $2,000 and I am trying to develop one for under $50. It has been done before but hasn’t been offered on the market wide-scale. I plan to develop this and package it so that more growers can understand how to optimize their light usage in regards to indoor agriculture. The reason we want to reduce the cost is because ideally you would want to distribute these sensors across grow beds and not have to track each data point manually each time.
H: I love that! Considering the mix of plants that often exist in indoor grow systems having modular sensors throughout would help a lot of growers. Tell us about the Open Agriculture Initiative.
E: The Open Agriculture Initiative is a plan by MIT CityFARM to share valuable data on optimizing food production through the cloud. When I came into this industry I thought: well of course this information is available online (how much light plants need, etc.) when in fact it simply isn’t there. I realized how secretive the agriculture industry is and I think that is something that really needs to change. I think that it will become more open source and become more collaborative. I think that competition can still exist while helping people everywhere grow better food. At MIT CityFARM we want to make a platform for which people can share data on lighting, energy, nutrients, controls, and more.
H: Agriculture is so variable. How will you make this data shareable and applicable to so many different contexts?
E: Well, we are going to partner with Masdar and develop “mirror labs” there and elsewhere. This will really test how we share data across geographical realms. It will be the real test of how we create a language and collaboration around city farming.
H: Last question: what has been the most exciting part of the GFIA conference?
E: While I don’t think my jaw ever dropped, it was nice to know how people are communicating about this food revolution. It is nice to know that there are so many people who are forward thinking and share our perspective. Its really about pushing boundaries and proving if you can actually achieve many of these innovations being talked about. I am most interested in continuing the dialogue here and how that helps move us beyond the technology, communication, and data challenges we face.
Click here to learn more about the MIT CityFARM and watch the video below. Follow them on Twitter!