Leafy greens grow in one of the MIT Media Lab's contraptions
High-tech innovations can help urban farmers grow anywhere. Open Agriculture Initiative, MIT Media Lab

To serve neighborhoods, they need to work together.

Urban farmers are increasingly leveraging technologies like machine learning and smartphone integration to build high-yield farms in small urban spaces. And while it may seem that those innovations upend the “slow food” idea of working together in the dirt to grow organic zucchini or lettuce, sharing time and crops with neighbors, the success of these higher-tech projects may hinge on the support of local community gardeners.

In theory, a commitment to building a local food system that meets the needs of urban dwellers without relying on long-distance transportation methods—which can leave a substantial carbon footprint—is great. Many contemporary urban farms are cropping up in direct opposition to large-scale agricultural operations that are perceived as harmful to people and the environment. But in practice, urban farmers have struggled with limited real estate, high-priced infrastructure, and other challenges unique to the city environment. (Chicago’s green rooftop initiatives, for instance, were successful in revitalizing interest in urban farming, but even the 3.5 million square feet of urban farmland on 500-plus rooftops has failed to make a real dent in the city’s food demands.) Those are constraints that high-tech innovations aim to solve.

High-tech help for urban farmers

Housed on only one-eighth of an acre, Urban Produce in Irvine, California, harvests the volume of crops typical of a 16-acre facility. The indoor vertical farming operation specializes in growing organic microgreens, herbs, and leafy greens in a controlled environment. While Urban Produce has only one location today, they have big aspirations. "In five years, we hope to build 25 urban farms worldwide. Imagine cities, corporate campuses, master-planned communities, cruise ships, and military bases growing their own local, organic produce," says Urban Produce CEO Ed Horton. "In 20 years, I expect we’ll be growing organic produce on the International Space Station."

Space farming aside, high-yield urban farms that produce thousands of pounds of food are only one piece of the tech-enabled urban farming puzzle. Other initiatives are focusing on bringing families back into the fold with self-contained farms that are designed for use in small city apartments. Grove Garden combines an aquarium with a garden to create a closed-loop ecosystem: you feed the fish, their water is cycled to water the plants, and the plants grow to feed you. Grove Garden uses one-tenth of the water of traditional farming methods, and it's all remotely manageable by a smartphone app.

Still in the fundraising stage, Lyfbox is another permaculture garden option that can produce 40 different crops in a few feet of growing space. But Lyfbox goes one step further with an app that leads urban farmers from planting to cooking, reducing food waste by providing recipe suggestions when a crop is ready to harvest. The app even connects farmers with their community to help them buy or sell their crops from their smartphones.

The most productive urban farms have one thing in common: they rely on tightly controlled environments in order to maximize crops year-round, regardless of local growing conditions. In these environments, growing conditions are automated based on a combination of farming wisdom, trial-and-error, and growing models. But until recently, there was no such thing as an ideal "recipe" for growing conditions—making each smart farming environment only as good as the data it has available.

MIT's OpenAg initiative, in partnership with Sentient, hopes to change that. Using the power of 2 million computers located in 4,000 sites worldwide, researchers set out to discover whether advanced artificial intelligence could offer farmers insight into the optimal way to grow crops. Researchers began by testing basil in growing chambers called "Food Computers," which are similar to the type of closed-loop environments used by many urban farmers. Soon, the AI made a surprising discovery: basil grows best when exposed to continuous sunlight. By the end of the 18-week experiment, researchers had collected three million points of data, per plant, per growth cycle. This data is publicly available to anyone who wants to work with it, and in the future, researchers hope to program the AI to adapt its growing conditions based on what it learns throughout the growth cycle.

MIT’s food computer information is open data, so any farmer can build one. (Open Agriculture Initiative, MIT Media Lab)

"Farmers know a lot about the conditions in their own environment, but not even the best farmer knows how to grow the plants optimally when you can control all these environmental factors at will," says Risto Miikkulainen, vice president of research at Sentient. "We believe these recipes will help farmers grow the best crops, with the most yield, in the places that need [them] most. This would not only reduce the cost of exporting food across the world, but also reduce the amount of energy required to grow plants. We might even see food being grown directly in grocery stores."

If grocery stores doubling as farms sounds outlandish, consider how unlikely growing meat in a laboratory would've sounded a decade ago. The technology exists to make these goals a reality, but it will take more than technology to revolutionize urban farming. Their success relies on a community that's interested in and educated about sustainability, and is willing to invest in it—and that's where small community gardens can make a big impact.

Community gardens have deep roots

With increasingly divergent technologies and resources, you might expect community gardeners to be at odds with the new generation of high-tech urban farmers. As urban farms continue to adopt new technologies to enhance their crop yields, space constraints could eventually pit the two against each other. Are community gardeners excited by the prospect or afraid they'll lose the community that made their gardens so successful?

In many cases, today's community gardens exist to solve a problem very different from the one they were aiming at in the 1890s, when Detroit and other cities looked to them to offer residents a place to raise a homegrown solution to an economic recession that left laborers unemployed and hungry. Now, many gardens are an antidote to isolation from nature and neighbors. While some gardeners enjoy the financial benefits of selling food, most community gardens aren't intended to feed their communities entirely. Unlike large-scale urban farming operations, their primary focus is on teaching sustainable farming principles and connecting with members of their communities.

Higher-tech innovations won’t necessarily compete with community gardens that are deeply rooted in their communities. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

Karin La Greca is on the board of the Fresh Roots Farm, a two-acre nonprofit organic educational farm in Mahweh, New Jersey. While each volunteer receives some of the food the farm produces, she says it's the community, not the food, that attract volunteers to the farm. "Community gardens give a sense of place to the residents of the community," she says.

Sable Bender used to work for an organic farm that relied on draft horses to plow the fields. Now, she works for the largest greenhouse manufacturer in the country and does her own farming on a smaller scale, helping out at a local school garden. She sees larger urban farms and community gardens as essential to each other's existence. "As people learn about urban farms, it encourages them to get involved with a community garden and it creates a desire to know more and try growing something for themselves," she says. "On the other hand, you have people who have been involved with a community garden taking on larger urban agriculture projects."

La Greca agrees. Far from being afraid of the impacts of urban farms on her own small community garden, she welcomes the opportunity to teach sustainable farming principles to a larger audience. "Community gardens allow residents to connect with nature, something that has been lost along the way," she says. "As community gardens move forward both in municipalities and schools, I believe farmers will get the respect they deserve and the community will support the farmers and collaborate together to change our food system for a better future."

Artificial intelligence and smartphone-integrated farms might seem like strange bedfellows for a movement that prides itself on returning to a more "natural" state. Talking casually about machine learning and closed-loop ecosystems, these aren't your grandparents' farmers—and they may be exactly what's needed to make their vision of sustainable urban farming a reality.

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