Farming Without Fields: 3 Innovative Uses of Agricultural Engineering

by Kimberly Holland
- Mar 30 2016 - 6 min read
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When you think of nontraditional farming methods or agricultural engineering, you may picture greenhouse-type configurations of Bluetooth-enabled seed beds. You might also see stacked shipping containers filled with row after row of greens, herbs, and vegetables.

Indeed, today’s farming is quite different from the farming of just a generation or two ago. But in many cases, agriculture conglomerates have purchased independent farms to create megasize industrial farms that are good for one thing: churning out lots of food. Sure, it feeds the beast of modern food supply, but at the current pace of production, these megafarms won’t be capable of keeping up with the population of the future—and they certainly don’t appeal to consumers who worry about the impact of their food choices on the environment.

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Courtesy Livin Farms

The grow-your-own food movement is fueled in large part by these consumers’ demands. The ultimate answer to easing your own food fears is to be your own farmer, but traditional farming methods don’t suit a modern, urban life. This void of farming alternatives has inspired engineering startups, empowered by accessible design tools such as Autodesk Fusion 360, to create smarter, more efficient farming models. Here are three examples of farming alternatives using agricultural engineering to change the way the world gets its food.

agrilution’s plantCube

Most grocery-store foods are lackluster versions of the beautiful, vibrant produce farmers grow. That’s because the produce is often picked early and forced to sustain a long transport—in some cases traveling thousands of miles or across oceans—from the farm to the store. By the time you get the produce home, you may have a mere 48 hours before it is wilting or rotting.

That reality is what drove agrilution to create the plantCube. “We are not just another startup building another DIY home-growing device,” says Maximilian Loessl, agrilution’s cofounder and CEO. “The concept of agrilution at its target is much bigger. We are creating a home-growing ecosystem where the best, freshest, healthiest, and tastiest greens are the focal point.”

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Courtesy agrilution

One key way agrilution enables DIY growers’ success is by using the power of modern technology to make growing as seamless—and as painless—as possible. “The agrilution ecosystem consists of a fully automated home growing device, the plantCube, and an app to remote-monitor and control what’s growing in the plantCube, to connect with other users, and to buy new refill varieties,” Loessl says.

The plantCube is roughly the size of a dishwasher. The climate-controlled device can replicate conditions of any country, so if you are keen on growing special produce for Japanese or Chinese cuisine, you could do so, say, from your house in coastal Georgia or the highest elevations of the Rockies. But the greatest power of technologies like plantCube is its impact—or rather its lack of impact—on the resources that are already vulnerable because of standard farming methods.

“The sustainability advantages of vertical farming technology are vast,” Loessl says. “We use zero pesticides and only 2 percent of the water used in conventional agriculture, only 40 percent of the fertilizer, 50 percent of the space, and zero arable land is needed. But the greatest impact our products make is to reconnect people with what they eat and how plants grow. Growing your own food makes you more aware of what and how you eat and buy.”

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Bright Agrotech’s ZipGrow towers lined the U.S. Pavilion exterior at Expo Milano 2015 in Italy. Courtesy Bright Agrotech.

Bright Agrotech’s ZipFarms

In the realm of vertical farming, Bright Agrotech is taking to the skies, literally. Its ZipGrow towers, which leverage true vertical-plane farming, can line the sides of buildings or fill vacant lots while still producing more food than conventional farming methods could yield in the same plot of land.

ZipFarms rely on hydroponic growing. “Hydroponics is great in a few different ways,” says Bright Agrotech CEO Nate Storey. “One, it is very lightweight. It removes a lot of the complications of working with soils. It allows us to concentrate production in a way that minimizes the use of fossil fuels and machinery, and it’s formulated, so we know exactly what’s in it, and we know exactly how it will impact plant growth, and we know exactly what kind of nutrition value of that plant will be, because everything is highly standardized.”

This soilless growth allows for high-density production in unlikely places, and it allows farmers to crop up anywhere. “It’s way more accessible than having to go out and find 50 or 60 acres that you can buy or lease to farm,” Storey says. “Ninety-eight percent of the population lives in cities now, and 2 percent live in rural areas. If we really want to grow food close to the source, then we’re growing in developed areas where land is really expensive. We have to figure out a way to grow with much, much higher density. You can’t stack fields on top of each other, but you can grow hydroponically in superdense configurations.”

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Courtesy Bright Agrotech

From mom-and-pop growers to restaurant-scale projects, Bright Agrotech has seen a dramatic increase in interest and use of its products in the past three years. Customers are planting the seeds for big change—starting with basil, mint, kale, watercress, and other leafy greens.

“The best kind of herbs and greens are the ones that are not bred for transportation,” Storey says. “What that means is, if you can grow those closer to the market, you can grow them more efficiently, get them to the customer, and get the customer a much higher-quality product.”

Livin Farms’ Hive

The same eco-friendly food movement that has given way to home farming, vertical farms, and kelp gardens has also spurred the creation of a bug-farming device. That’s right: Livin Farms, a company based in the UK and Hong Kong, has developed a product, called Hive, that helps you seed, grow, and harvest bugs.

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Courtesy Livin Farms

“Edible insects, such as mealworms, that you can grow inside your Hive are sustainable to raise, they need very little water and energy and can be raised on food that is in no competition with human food,” says Katharina Unger, founder and CEO of Livin Farms.

Unger knows this is unsure territory. “We are excited that the Hive really does make people rethink how and what they eat,” Unger says. “It’s a cultural and a paradigm shift that comes with edible insects becoming part of the Western diet. But it’s a healthy and sustainable one. We love to be at the forefront of a movement that really does get people to make a conscious choice.”

These three examples of agricultural engineering are the tip of the green iceberg—and where they grow, so grow many more like them. Traditional farming will likely be antiquated within a few generations, and in its place will be brilliant solutions for modernized food production. After all, the collective mind-set is moving from one that simply demands food to one that questions every aspect of that food: Where did it come from? Who grew it? What was its impact on the environment? There’s no better way to answer those questions than to know the farmer personally—or, rather, to be the farmer yourself.

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