Caleb Harper, Urban Agriculturalist

Picture of Caleb Harper holding a plant
Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Photography Fellow

Caleb Harper, Urban Agriculturalist

Reinventing Our Food Future With Urban Farms

Say the word "agriculture" and we imagine fields of wheat or strawberries ripening in the sun. But for Caleb Harper, a research scientist at MIT's Media Lab, the future of agriculture lies in urban farms, where plants will be grown in controlled environments close to consumers.

Talking from Boston, Harper explains why today's agricultural model is flawed, what an operating system for the farm of the future would look like, how his plants tweet to him when he is away, and why he still loves getting dirt on his boots at the family farm in Kansas. —Simon Worrall


Your interest in the future of food was triggered by the Japanese tsunami in 2011. What was the connection?


I went with a group of Media Lab folks who were interested in seeing how they could help in some way. When I arrived, the headlines read, "Japanese Farmlands Have No Water, No Youth, No Land and No Future." My family is in the grocery business and also raises crops and livestock in Texas and Kansas. That's part of my life. Later, I became an architect and engineer designing hospitals and data centers. So what happened in Japan really hit home. It got me thinking: How can I put my different skill sets together to make a difference? I realized that what is really needed is a data center for food, one that is not exposed to the natural environment.


Why is the current agricultural model flawed?


It just hasn't been strategically adapted to cities. We've created a pretty amazing model in one way. It has globally sourced everything. But I think now we're starting to see the effects of such a monolithic global model and how it fails locally. I'm not trying to replace the system, but augment it strategically by bringing a different tool to agriculture and food production that is more focused on the way people live now, which is in cities.


The City Farm project has been called "an operating system for the farm of the future." Tell us about aeroponic agriculture.


Aeroponics is a highly specialized method of irrigation that was first developed by NASA for the Mir space stations to reduce the payload of water in space. If you think of it as a continuum, on one end you have an unirrigated field with a farmer praying for rain. At the opposite end, you have aeroponics, which is like creating climate in a box. It's advanced technology that's still largely in the prototypical phase. But early results show that with aeroponics we're able to grow many different kinds of crops up to four or five times faster than they can be grown conventionally.


Your vision for the future calls for "vertical farms many stories high." It sounds like sci-fi. Paint a picture for us.


I think there are going to be a few versions. One is going to be a high-intensity production environment, much like a plant data center. It will all be monitored; the food will not need pesticides or chemicals, and it'll be predictable 365 days a year. We also envision things like corporate cafeterias doing more of their own growing or school cafeterias growing their own food. At the smallest level is a new project I just launched around personal food computing, which is about growing food in our homes.

One of the most exciting things is that the new technology will give us tools for experimenting with flavor we have never had before. When you create climate, you create flavor. A lettuce can be sweet or spicy or bitter. I've had a ton of interest from top chefs around the world. For them, the realization that flavor begins at seed and that you can change and create it is exciting. What if you could only get a particular eggplant flavor without it having anything to do with the way it is cooked?


What other advantages will urban farms have over traditional farms?


The biggest advantage is that they're right on top of their market. They can sell things fresher and cheaper than traditional farms because of all the logistics they have to support. Our ability to produce 365 days a year, as opposed to being dependent on a growing season, also gives them a tremendous advantage. This winter I was doing an experiment with a major producer, growing strawberries at below zero temperatures in the worst winter in Boston's history.


What inspires you in your work?


I just wanted to grow things. I think we all have mental escape boats and when life has become overwhelming for me, I wanted to grow things and bring that into my life. I still love working outdoors. I was in Kansas this weekend getting dirt on my boots, walking the sorghum fields on the farm. I have tremendous respect for it. I just think this new model is something that's needed in the world. My passion comes from wanting to combine the things I love in life: the technology of computing, architecture, and engineering with my innate desire to grow things. I now have something like 2,000 plants. They tweet at me [via a wireless sensor that monitors moisture in the dirt] when I am traveling. I check in with them online. It's a joy.

In Their Words

My passion comes from wanting to combine the things I love in life: the technology of computing, architecture, and engineering with my innate desire to grow things.

—Caleb Harper

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