Preserving the Environment

The Urban Farm That Is Soil-Free and Uses Virtually No Water

October 22, 2014
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The Urban Farm That Is Soil-Free and Uses Virtually No Water
MIT CityFARM
Lettuce, tomatoes and herbs grow inside CityFarm, a 60-square-foot indoor facility at MIT's Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. Courtesy CityFARM
Less traditional farming methods have the potential to transform our food sources, but can they be affordable?

Futuristic farms are not such a fantasy anymore, with dozens of projects cropping up around the country designing solutions to urban farming. The only problem? The costly price tag that comes with those initiatives.

Which is why CityFarm, born out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, is aiming to create a soil-free urban farming system that may be economically feasible for cities — regardless of locale. The 60-square-foot farm grows lettuce, tomatoes and herbs in a windowless room inside MIT’s Media Lab, Fast Company reports.

With no soil and the help of artificial light, the farm produces crops with as much as 90 percent less water than traditional methods.

“It’s essentially like a big, clear plastic box, about 7-feet wide by 30-feet long,” Caleb Harper, a research scientist leading the project, tells Fast Company. “Inside of that box, I have pre-made weather. I monitor everything,”

The system uses both hydroponic (water) and aeroponic (air or mist environment) soil-free processes to grow and has produced crops three to four times more quickly than the normal growth process. Using a 30-day cycle, CityFarm has produced food for 300 people.

“No one has proven an economically viable model for these kind of plant environments,” says Harper. “What I’m trying to do is kind of be the Linux for these environments — the person that creates the common language for this new area of food production.”

Harper believes his methodology could eventually reduce agricultural consumption of water by 98 percent and eliminate the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, double nutrient densities and reduce energy use to grow crops.

Harper first became interested in the idea after visiting Japan following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, prompting him to think about how cities could produce food without fear of contamination. Through CityFarm, Harper is developing a “plant operating system software” and looking for ways to make the process economically feasible for more cities.

CityFarm is working with Detroit to open the first off-campus version and continues plans to expand the MIT location vertically.

MORE: No Soil? Or Sun? This Urban Farm is Raising Fresh Food in a Whole New Way

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