OpenAG: Urban Farming With Computers



The “Food Computer,” invented by MIT agricultural researcher Caleb Harper, can progress urban farming by making it more sustainable. Amy Bentley, co-founder of the NYU Farm Lab and Professor of Food Studies at NYU Steinhardt, is thinking about using the “Food Computer” at the NYU Farm Lab.

Geomari Martinez, Contributing Writer

Computers can now control the weather, thanks to MIT Principal Investigator and Director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative Caleb Harper. His invention, the Food Computer, uses the artificial to create the natural. Ranging in scale from the desktop-sized Personal Food Computer to the industrial-scale Food Data Center, these glass chambers are monitored by computerized systems to make them grow, sustain and harvest crops.

“It will all be monitored; the food will not need pesticides or chemicals, and it’ll be predictable 365 days a year,” Harper said of his Open Agriculture, or Open AG, initiative in a 2015 interview with National Geographic. “We also envision things like corporate cafeterias doing more of their own growing or school cafeterias growing their own food.”

This new mode of urban farming would reduce water waste, utilize less land and eliminate the need for food transportation.

Associate Professor at the NYU Steinhardt Department of Nutrition and Food Studies Carolyn Dimitri said the method by which this initiative grows plants is nothing new, but its application is.

“There is a production method called ‘precision agriculture,’” Dimitri wrote in an e-mail. “It seems this food computer is a form of that practice. In general, precision agriculture can help farmers increase their productivity and lower costs, so, in principle, I think it is a terrific method for the tech-savvy farmer.”

However, Dimitri questioned how widely adopted this technology could be within the farming community.

Amy Bentley, co-founder of the NYU Farm Lab and professor of Food Studies at Steinhardt, believes this small plot of land – located on the south side of the Silver Towers on Houston Street – will be a valuable educational tool not only to students but also to the New York community as a whole.

“It’s great, because it has multi-uses,” Bentley said. “We have an urban agriculture class here in our department that’s run three times a year: spring, summer, fall. It’s used by faculty who live in Silver Towers, it’s used by the nursery school there as part of their enrichment program, and we get a lot of community buy-in by passersby on the way. They’re very interested in it – they think it’s a great thing.”

The Farm Lab is a great way to discover new ways of farming and agriculture, similar to how Harper discovered new options for farming with his computer.

Bentley is also open to the possibility of using Harper’s “Food Computer” at the Farm Lab.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 3rd print edition. Email Geomari Martinez at [email protected]