The barriers to urban farming don’t end at zoning ordinances and neighborhood politics. Not everyone has rooftop access, and arable lots can be far and few between. City soil often contains chemicals and contaminants, like lead. Sometimes the air is just as dirty as the dirt. And like traditional farming, there are seasons to deal with. You simply can’t grow tomatoes in an outdoor garden in the middle of winter. Those aren’t reasons to stop outdoor urban farming, but they do make it difficult to scale the model up.
But what if you didn’t need dirt? Or much water? Or direct sunlight? What if you could grow fresh produce in plastic boxes? And could stack those boxes on top of each other, inside of, say, a warehouse? Or better yet, a basement?
At first glance, the GrowCube doesn’t look like a place where you’d want to put a plant. There’s no dirt. No water. No sunlight. It looks more like an arcade game than a nurturing environment. But the device, which only exists in prototype form at the moment, actually has everything a plant needs to grow, as well as software that manages the entire growing process. And it’s getting lots of attention at this week’s Insert Coin competition, hosted by Engadget. GrowCube founder Chris Beauvois made a video demonstrating the GrowCube system:
I spoke to Beauvois and GrowCube’s Elizabeth Thacker Jones about where they’re going with this thing. The goal, says Jones, is “fabricate 50 to a 100 in a warehouse in Brooklyn and build the first vertical farm in New York City.” They’d like that farm to be powered by rooftop solar panels, meaning it would use less water and less energy. It’s ambitious, to say the least.
But so is the GrowCube itself. Instead of using dirt, or even hydroponics (which is when plants are grown with their roots submerged in water), GrowCube uses an aeroponic system to spray a nutrient-infused mist directly on the plants’ exposed roots. Aeroponic growing is ”much more fragile” than conventional growing, says Beauvois, but also more efficient, in that it uses 95 percent less water than conventional growing. The box in which the plants are grown is pressurized, which means “there’s very little chance of anything being able to enter the cube, such as pathogens.” The plants are grown on shelves connected to wheels (if you haven’t watched the video, imagine a rotisserie), and the wheels are synchronized with a misting device that sprays a “sort of cocktail” onto the roots. A light source at the top of the box stimulates photosynthesis.
The absence of dirt, which can store moisture until the plant needs it, means everything has to work just so. “If you don’t get a part right, anything that starts to grow will eventually die because it’s not getting the proper misting action,” says Beauvois. “If you have something that grows in six weeks and you’re in week five, losing power even for a few hours could cause irreversible damage.”It’s with these concerns in mind that Beauvois developed software to minimize the possibility for human error, mostly by minimizing human involvement in the growing process. “We can take away the complexity and turn anyone into a farmer,” he says. The application that manages GrowCube walks would-be farmers though what produce they want to grow and what their GrowCube capacity is. “As long as you monitor what it asks for, nutrients, water, you don’t have to do much else. It culls data and analyzes it.”Basically, he says, “The sensor data does most of the work.”Overtime, as more cubes become operative, Beauvois can imagine the software being far more valuable than the hardware. Amassing a large collection of data would allow farmers to engineer taste and other characteristics. Crispy, tangy. That kind of thing.While Beauvois would eventually like to develop a consumer model that would retail for under $500, he thinks the “best use for GrowCubes would be larger scale.”"Ideally you would have a lot of these being powered by an alternative energy model, like solar energy, and working in a very meshed capacity. Then the whole question of how you grow indoors kind of becomes a moot point."