This Indoor Farm Can Bring Fresh Produce to Food Deserts
Almonds got the brunt of the bad press, but they hardly deserve all the blame for California’s water woes. Sure, it’s worth considering how to minimize your water footprint, and forgoing your daily handful of almonds in solidarity with the parched earth couldn’t hurt. But considering how widespread the water crisis is, and the fact that agriculture is responsible for 80 percent of the country’s water consumption, the more crucial question to be asking now—particularly on Earth Day—is what can be done to fundamentally change the way our food gets made?
Mattias Lepp says at least part of the answer involves making it easier for anyone—even city dwellers—to farm their own food. That’s why Lepp, founder of the Estonian startup Click & Grow, has developed what he calls a Smart Farm, an indoor farming system that requires 95 percent less water than traditional agriculture.
You may remember Click & Grow from their uber-successful Smart Herb Garden Kickstarter campaign a few years back. That product let people easily grow herbs in their homes with minimal maintenance. The Smart Farm is similar, but on a much larger scale. The system, which Lepp spent years developing in partnership with universities across Estonia, France, and Russia, can hold 50 to 250 plants at a time, making it a viable option for urban areas that don’t have access to fresh produce—areas the US government calls food deserts. Ideally, a shift to urban farming could drastically reduce the distance between where food is grown and where it is consumed.
The market for these indoor farms, or so-called vertical farms, is already fast-growing, driven by the growing realization that the current water-chugging agricultural system is unsustainable. On one end of the spectrum, countless DIY indoor farming enthusiasts are growing small gardens in their homes. On the other are professional outfits like Green Sense Farms out of Chicago, which grows leafy greens indoors and sells them at local stores. Even tech giants like Panasonic and Toshiba have begun developing gigantic de facto farms of their own in Asia, where there is a severe shortage of agricultural land.
And yet, the majority of these larger farms use hydroponic farming, a process that involves growing plants in mineral solutions instead of soil. They save anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of the water required for traditional agriculture, but they’re complex and can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For most of us, it wouldn’t be economically practical for you or me to grow a full-scale farm at home.
With the Smart Farm, which costs just $1,500, Lepp says it can be. “People all over the world have worked intensively the last 10 or 20 years on bringing food production closer to cities and finding ways to grow it more efficiently,” he says. “But today they all are using hydroponics, and that is unfortunately expensive and messy. We see how we can change this.”
Rather than relying on hydroponics, the Smart Farm uses a new type of soil called Smart Soil, which Lepp developed in partnership with academic advisors. The soil itself is spongey, allowing air and nutrients to flow through. Meanwhile, the nutrients are covered in a special coating that responds to soil moisture. The hardware, which looks like a glass refrigerator, consists of trays for each plant equipped with LED lights and sensors that detect when the moisture levels are off balance. The “farmer” can use an app to adjust the water levels in the system, which triggers more nutrients to be released.
This process cuts down on the amount of water required to grow the plants, Lepp says, because no wastewater is produced. At the same time, the time people have to spend actually tending to the plants is minimized.
“Click & Grow can give the plant the perfect conditions to grow, because air, water, and nutrients are dosed perfectly without any obstacles,” says Uno Mäeorg, a professor at the University of Tartu in Estonia, who worked with Lepp on the development of Smart Soil “And since those conditions are perfect for the plant, it provides us healthier plants.”
Be that as it may, the Smart Farm is still a long way from accomplishing Lepp’s eventual dream of putting a full-scale farm in every urban neighborhood. For starters, the system only supports a limited number of plants today, including strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, and other herbs, though Lepp says that will change with time. Also, for now the Smart Farm is only available on a built-to-order basis. While the company already has orders coming in and pilot projects with universities, it won’t begin full-scale retail distribution until 2016.
Then there’s the simple fact that we’re all just plain used to buying food from a store. The dream of distributed farming may always be limited to the number of consumers who care enough to try it out.
Still, according to Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health and microbiology at Columbia University and author of the book The Vertical Farm, that number is growing steadily. And as more people become willing to give indoor farming a try, he says it’s critically important that they have tools, like the Smart Farm, to ease the effort.
“I think it could make a dent in the commercial side of things,” Despommier says of indoor farming’s potential to impact mainstream agriculture. “And if you look at what’s happening in California, there may not be a commercial side of things for much longer.”