A research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab has created a soil-free, urban farming system called CityFARM that could produce affordable, high-quality food in cities.
Caleb Harper MA ’14 grows lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs in a windowless room at the Media Lab using a combination of hydroponics and aeroponics, with red and blue LEDs providing artificial sunlight. He’s created a similar set-up that receives direct sunlight to figure out how these different light sources affect his crops. Neither “farm” requires soil, and both use at least 90% less water than traditional growing methods.
Harper is collaborating with the city of Detroit, where he hopes to establish another CityFarm. He believes urban farming systems could make more, and more affordable, produce available in dense urban areas, and in other places unsuitable for farming. And he believes that his system can succeed, where others have not.
“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,” he said in a recent interview with Fast Company.
Crops grow three to four times faster using the MIT CityFARM system compared to other methods such as soil planting and even traditional hydroponics. For example, a head of lettuce that usually takes 100 days to mature is ready to harvest within 15–20 days at Harper’s lab. So far, he’s produced enough food to feed 300 people.
The CityFarm project is a finalist in Fast Company’s 2014 Innovation by Design awards (winners will be announced October 15).