Farming Meets High Tech When Natural History Museum Kicks Off Food Lecture Series

Farming Meets High Tech When Natural History Museum Kicks Off Food Lecture Series

FEB 19, 2017

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Farming Meets High Tech When Natural History Museum Kicks Off Food Lecture Series

By KATHY STEPHENSON | The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Feb 18 2017 12:24PM    •    Last Updated Feb 18 2017 10:19 pm

They say you can't fool nature, but hundreds of "nerd farmers" around the globe are tapping technology to control climate and create the perfect conditions for growing food.

They are doing it with a personal food computer created by Caleb Harper and his team in the Open Agriculture Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Harper, the principal investigator and director of the lab, leads a diverse group of engineers, architects and scientists in the development of future food systems.

Their climate-controlled box, which can sit on a tabletop, has a computer brain and sensors that allow users to manipulate temperature, carbon-dioxide levels, humidity, light and pH. The plants are grown in minimal amount of water — no soil — using hydroponics.

 

Anyone, in any part of the world, can grow food, no matter the season, said Harper. Imagine growing water-loving tropical fruits in the middle of the Utah desert or sun-loving summer berries in the midst of a harsh winter.

Harper will talk about this blending of agriculture and technology Tuesday, when he kicks off the Natural History Museum of Utah's annual lecture series. Food is the theme of the five presentations, which include a keynote address by TV personality, chef and author Andrew Zimmern. Tickets for his talk go on sale Wednesday. (See box for details.)

Harper's lecture is free but requires a reservation.

There are nearly 400 "nerd farmers" around the globe who have built personal food computers — using Open Ag's open-source technology — collecting and sharing data with other users, Harper said.

"Every food computer that comes online, whatever they grow is recorded and in the future can be replayed as many times as we want," he said.

Farmers create their own growing "recipe" such as programming in more light or less humidity to see what happens. "As people explore, we are decoding that plant and getting a clearer map of a plant's ability to express itself," he said. "It's pretty phenomenal."

Eventually, Harper hopes the data can be used to create economically viable farms — possibly in shipping containers — that can be placed anywhere to create "hyperlocal food production."

"We need better food-supply chains, which are notoriously complex," he said. "This technology could be a new tool in the chain."

Interest in the personal food computers has grown beyond just the research stage, so Harper recently formed the nonprofit Open Agriculture Foundation, which will protect the open-source data and intellectual property and foster the growing community of farmers.

Harper and Utah entrepreneur Daniel Blake also have started Fenome, a small business that has begun assembling kits the community can buy that have everything needed to build a personal food computer.

The Fenome lab in West Valley City also houses large indoor growing tents, where Blake and the staff experiment with varieties of plants, learning which ones grow best in the personal food computer environments.

The personal food computers have other applications, as well. Many schools are using them to teach about biology, botany and climate change as well as coding, computer programming and engineering.

And Blake recently returned from Jordan, where he visited Azraq, a camp for refugees of the Syrian civil war. He said the United Nations World Food Organization is interested in food computer systems that could help supply at least a portion of the food to those living in the camps. Currently, all food and water are shipped.

"We are in the beginning stages of the process," Blake said, "but food computers could be deployed anywhere, especially harsh environments where food security is a problem."

kathys@sltrib.com

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