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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Startup Seeks to Use Open Source Monitoring Tech to Improve Efficiency on Small-Scale Farms

February 19, 2013 |

Photo Credit: HarvestGeek.

Growing shiitake oyster mushrooms for Michael Alt’s family’s restaurant proved to be a tricky operation in snowfall manic Syracuse, NY. Maintaining ideal conditions required a complicated set-up of seemingly endless triggers, humidifiers, fans, dehumidifiers and miscellaneous controls. At his day job, Alt was making radar technology for the US Department of Defense as a software engineer – stuff like forward facing detector installations for Afghanistan bases. It seemed far from related to his mushroom cultivating hobby, but then one of his hardware tech co-workers came in with something that had the potential to change everything for Alt’s growing operation.

It was a remote weather monitor and door controller for the guy’s chicken coop, set up through a short wave radio. This was a few years back when Alt didn’t know that something like that was even possible to rig up. Excited by the of idea of having a similar tool for his own operation, he launched into research and design drafting, churning out a prototype for an automated monitoring system that allowed him to nearly triple the size of his indoor mushroom operation.

After years of continual experimentation, the much-evolved design is now in its final stages of development. The system is two-fold: the HarvestBot is the device itself, which monitors the key environmental variables of gardens, greenhouses and hydroponic operations and adjusts equipment (lights, fans, air and water pumps, etc) accordingly. That data is relayed to the HarvestGeek web platform, lovingly dubbed the “Modern Farmer’s Almanac” by Alt. It feeds the info back to the growers with notifications via SMS, e-mail, or even Facebook or Twitter, so that users are always kept abreast of conditions despite being off premises. HarvestGeek then provides users a detailed analysis of their data and the opportunity to compare and share results with others on the platform. Everything – the software, hardware, and user data – will be open source.

The SensorStation, which is the building block of HarvestBot, wirelessly monitors air temperature and relative humidity, light intensity(LUX) and soil moisture. Photo Credit: HarvestGeek.

Though all this started out as a mere hobby for Alt, his research has made him a passionate advocate of the local food movement and enthusiastic about the potential of these kinds of innovations to fundamentally transform our system of agriculture. He believes in the movement’s general philosophy – that locally based, small-scale agriculture is more sustainable and resilient than industrialized practices – but is conscious of the hurdles that must be overcome.

“The problem is that there’s no incentive for there to be local farmers. You don’t make money at it. Local farmers are, generally speaking, poor. Many of them have second jobs just to pay for the farm.”

And even if the last few years have witnessed an upswing in cultural demand for local, organic produce, people aren’t going to pay double for a locally grown head of broccoli. Local farmers are, quite simply, not competitive with industrial producers. That’s the crux of the problem, according to Alt. But he’s optimistic that solutions exist.

“Maybe I can use [HarvestGeek] to help these people be more efficient at what they’re doing. That is, to reduce input – time, utilities, cost, and resources – and maximize the quality and quantity of their output.”

He envisions small-scale farming appropriating more of the automation and technical cutting edge of industrial systems, though he recognizes the difficulties in realizing this transformation.

“There’s a lot of barriers to small farmers being able to use something like this – we have to get them comfortable with technology,” Alt said. “It will take exposure and time.”

Alt touts open source sharing – which democratizes access to information by extending everyone the license to reproduce, recreate and resell it as they see fit –  as one of the greatest facilitators to this end. He himself is a beacon of open source-driven success, most of his knowledge about microcontrollers comes from studying projects whose designs were available on open source platforms. It is through this free propagation of technology that Alt sees the possibility for a revolution in food production.

With 4 days left of the allotted time on his Kickstarter, Alt has already surpassed his pledged goal. This initial investment money is what will allow him to manufacture a large enough bundle of units so that the project is economically feasible. “To do a one off unit would cost a fortune,” he explained, but with expectations to produce a first batch of about 1,600 units, he’ll be able to sell each for just about $150.00. It’s designed to be adaptable for use in commercial farming, greenhouse and hydroponic settings, but affordable enough for a small window garden – and is certainly a real step towards making high-tech, expensive industrial tools accessible for neighborhood farms.

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