How to Farm Without Breaking a Sweat

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In the not-too-distant future, taking agriculture into our own hands might mean a hands-off approach. 

Video by Tom Gorman.

Let’s face it: Gardening ain’t for sissies. It’s tough work, squatting and kneeling as you water, plant and wrest stubborn weeds from the soil for hours under the hot, relentless sun. It can ravage your muscles and joints, and cause throbbing knee and lower back pain. Now, you can ditch the soreness, sweat and dirt, and garden from your sofa in your comfy, air-conditioned living room. And the only muscles you need to move are in your fingertips as they glide across your tablet or smartphone.

That’s thanks to Santa Cruz, California-based startup Cityblooms, which designs cloud-based mini-greenhouses, or micro-farms, for underused urban spaces like rooftops and vacant lots. Sensors measure humidity, temperature and more, sending this information to a cloud database that relays instructions to the micro-farms to adjust conditions accordingly — like turning on the fans if it’s too hot. Cityblooms founder and CEO Nick Halmos hatched the concept as an undergrad at Brown University. Wanting to devise innovative ways to feed a fast-growing population and lower energy waste, he turned his focus to urban farming for a final project, engineering a hydroponic-based system — plants with their roots suspended directly in nutrient-filled water — in his dorm’s bathtub. After that success, and learning everything he could about urban agriculture, Halmos founded Cityblooms in 2010 and last year launched a pilot project to deliver lettuce and other greens to electronic communications company Plantronics from a field 200 yards away.

But the micro-farms bear a hefty price tag. A setup of around 16 units could cost roughly $50,000, raising the question of “who actually has access to these resources?” says Nathan McClintock, an assistant professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. Plus, the micro-farms are “very energy intensive because of all the electricity,” says Bruce Bugbee, a professor of crop physiology at Utah State University. But Halmos still glows with the idealism of his bathtub gardening days, maintaining that investing some green now might be worth the green returns later. “I love growing food,” he says. “I see the value that’s represented by the promise of urban agriculture.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the cost of a micro-farm setup.

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