A Farming Robot Will Help Grow You Food

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All of our food comes from somewhere. Of course it does, you say, just like everything else, but it might not be something you think about when searching the produce section for a fresh head of lettuce or perfectly ripened tomatoes.

But yes, it all comes from somewhere—grown in soil, cultivated, nurtured, and handled by farmers before making its way to our local grocer and eventually onto our plate. There’s an uncertainty there, though—a lack of connection to our food, from whence it came, and how it was developed in the first place. Such has always been the case, but more recently movements to reduce the ambiguity behind food production have developed momentum and grown louder, and the market is beginning to respond.

Enter the FarmBot Genesis from FarmBot.io, the world’s first open-source computer numerical control (CNC) farming machine, sized to fit neatly in your average backyard and produce crops for its users year-round. BTRtoday spoke with FarmBot.io CEO Rory Aronson about the company’s newest design, how easy it is to use, and the future of home farming and sustainability in food production.

BTRtoday (BTR): Can you talk about the development of the FarmBot Genesis?

Rory Aronson (RA): I started working on FarmBot Genesis about three years ago. The first thing was I published the paper online, and from that I developed a small team, and we’ve been working on that ever since. Just this last month, we debuted our first product, which is a FarmBot Genesis kit, where all the parts come in a box and the user would put it together in their front yard, backyard, rooftop, greenhouse, and have a functioning FarmBot that can grow food for them.

BTR: How easy is it to set up and for people to use?

RA: It’s pretty straightforward. We have some really high quality step-by-step assembly instructions that guide you through everything. So if you can use a screwdriver, look at some photos and go along with some easy-to-follow instructions, you’re fine. Then once you have it set up, we’ve also developed this software that makes it really easy to control and configure FarmBot. We have a web application that users can use to control and configure FarmBot by dragging and dropping different commands on the screen, and also creating virtual representations of their garden. So they can drag and drop plants in the map view, and then FarmBot would do the rest.

BTR: So it’s almost like the old Facebook game FarmVille come to life.

RA: Exactly, that’s how we compare it—it’s FarmVille for real life. It’s a very gamified interface that we hope anyone can pick up in a matter of minutes.

BTR: Not everyone lives on fertile farmland. What do FarmBot users do about soil setup?

RA: We offer suggestions, but whether they put it on a raised bed of soil in a parking lot, in their yard, or an ultra-controlled indoor growing environment like a greenhouse, that component of the system is entirely up to the end user.

BTR: How would someone be able to identify whether or not the soil in their yard is suitable for growing crops?

RA: That’s something that we’re looking at solving with software. We’re going to ship FarmBot with one soil sensor to measure moisture content. That would allow us to measure the moisture somewhere, water that location, measure the moisture content again after five minutes, and build up a profile of how well your soil absorbs water. Over the next three days, depending on the sun temperature and whether or not it was cloudy, you could assess how much water evaporates from your soil. So we can build up that profile, and also the user will be able to enter more information into the software about what kind of soil they have.

BTR: What do you think are some of the factors that have led to the increased popularity of home farming?

RA: There’s been a general trend of people wanting to know more about their food in a time when people know less and less about it because of conventional food gathering methods. Everybody eats three times a day—what is it they’re putting in their bodies? Nobody really knows. When you go and buy stuff from the grocery store, you don’t know how that produce or those food products are produced. You don’t really know where they came from or what the conditions were for the workers that grew them.

There are all these questions around the food system, and people really want to have more transparency and control around what it is they’re eating. Knowing that it’s coming from a good environment, knowing that it’s grown in a sustainable way from an energy and resources standpoint. They want to know exactly what was used to grow the plants—was this done organically, and what does that even mean? What kind of chemicals, if any, are used in the production of this food? They want to know that their food isn’t damaging people’s lives. Having a robot is an assurance of that process.

BTR: How does FarmBot optimize the food production process and get people more interested in the resources used to grow food?

RA: When people don’t see a process, they don’t understand it, and they can’t really care about it. So when food is grown in some faraway land and you don’t actually see the process, it’s hard to actually care and understand what resources it took to grow that and care about optimizing it and making it efficient. As soon as you put that process right in front of people, they start to become very aware of it. They say “oh, that’s how much water it takes to grow that. How can we improve that and make it better?” Putting the process in front of people is an important first step, because there’s an educational component there.

FarmBot is really great for optimizing things. Everything is controlled by the computer, so every single plant can be grown in this optimized way. So if a lettuce plant is three days old, it’s going to require a specific amount of water, and FarmBot can put that water in a very precise location right at the plant’s roots. Whereas a lot of conventional agriculture uses these overhead sprinklers, and a lot of water is wasted—it evaporates into the air or runs off, which causes other problems downstream.

BTR: With that desire for sustainability and knowledge of where things come from, do you see home farming as the future?

RA: Yes and no. We’re never going to be able to fully get rid of traditional or centralized agriculture where large amounts of food are grown on very large pieces of land far away from the end eater. I don’t think we’re going to be able to escape that, because of the way consumer preferences are. You can’t grow anything anywhere—it’s just not feasible. It’d be very difficult to grow enough wheat to process enough flour to bake enough bread for yourself using a FarmBot or using the space available in your backyard.

What I see happening are fruits and vegetables being more produced at home, more on a localized level, distributed across the whole world. I think that’s a really great solution, because everybody likes a fruit tree. A fruit tree provides so much food for basically no effort, and it can be placed really anywhere. Vegetables are where FarmBot comes in, and you don’t need a lot of area—actually just about the size of a queen mattress to be able to grow all of your vegetable need continuously, and that’s what we sized FarmBot to do. That’s a very feasible solution.

It’s going to be a balance, and it’s going to be more of a balance toward localized and distributed food than it currently is.