Enjoy a little technology with your tomatoes or some code with your cucumbers? Brooklyn-based Feedback Farms is bringing cultivation into the computer age by using sensor-embedded planters that remotely monitor the soil conditions of their vegetable beds. The information is gathered on a laptop, allowing real-time observations on the agricultural experiment and allowing for adjustments to be made quickly and efficiently. Welcome to the future of urban agriculture.
This January, Tom Hallaran and his colleagues Clare Sullivan, Kallie Weinkle and Gregory Sogorka established Feedback Farms, a collective that began growing crops on a plot of land located several blocks away from Hallaran’s Brooklyn apartment. Hallaran had previously studied software design at Reed College before dropping out to pursue the high tech project and renew his love of agriculture. He used his tech savvy to design a custom dashboard for his computer that keeps track of and evaluates the five different bed designs on the lot. Each of the 40 beds are planted with different varieties of kale and tomatoes in randomized positions, and sensors keep tabs on light, soil, and water conditions. Due to problems with urban heavy metal contamination (Feedback Farms’ lot contained over a thousand parts per million of lead contamination with some additional cadmium arsenic), the beds are raised off of the ground so as to minimize exposure and are watered by a sub-irrigation system. The soil itself is a potting mix harvested from upstate New York, and is light enough to suck in a maximum of moisture and oxygen.
Additional high tech features of the farm include bar-coded seedling packets that are grouped in Super Sack planters, moisture sensors, ZigBee radiosto transmit wi-fi signals, and an Andriod Open Data Kit application that crunches all of the data. So far, Feedback Farms is getting high yields from the tomatoes which surprisingly only have to be watered about once a week during the summer. For the future, Hallaran would like to create visual representations of the collected information, turning numbers into graphs and charts recording yields, checking the ripeness and color of tomatoes, and developing algorithms to help determine the best time to pick the fruits from the vine. In 2013, Feedback Farms will expand to a second lot about a half-mile away from their Bergen Street patch.
“We can use technology to manage these dispersed locations and stitch them up into a fabric of farms,” Hallaran says. “We do that with technology that gives you a heads-up about what’s going on at these different lots without having to bike around or take a subway or drive to each site to understand what the priorities are. We still have a ways to go to get there but that’s the goal.”
Ushering in a new era of urban agriculture, Feedback Farms is looking forward to the fall harvest where their rewards will certainly be food for thought.