OpenAg — Farming For The Future: Building a Digital World Farm —

An open source ecosystem of food technologies to create healthier, more engaging and more inventive food systems. Grow local, from anywhere.

Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg)

In 2013, MIT grad-student Caleb Harper built a fully networked farm of tomatoes, lettuce, and broccoli inside the school’s Media Lab. He hoped to prove he could use data to optimize crop yields, boost nutrient density, and reduce water consumption by 98% compared with traditional farming, all of which he did. But there was no meaningful way to share his data with the world. Despite an ongoing boom in agtech, no one cared about his findings or dared to share theirs.

In September 2015, Caleb launched the OpenAg Initiative, the first open-source platform for global agriculture and food hackers. The project’s mission – to create more farmers for the future of food production, by developing the open-source hardware and software platforms for sensor-controlled hydroponic and aeroponic agriculture systems. These platforms, called Food Computers, could operate on a variety of scales, and would be integrated into an open-platform for agricultural research and experimentation.

Open-sourced agriculture

Traditional agriculture is quite closed and opaque. It’s understood by few people at a production scale. OpenAg wants people to research agriculture, share it online, and grow healthier food and more of it around the world.

Nowadays there are 20,000 square-foot indoor farms popping-up all over the world. But no one shares anything because they think their IP is so valuable. PlantLab in the Netherlands has a warehouse full of little pods where they create microclimates, which in turn create a novel flavor, a novel shape, and specific nutrients in the plants. Creating all this knowledge can take a lifetime, so they patent their processes. OpenAg wants to create plant-growing recipes that resemble Wikipedia.

To achieve this, OpenAg has developed shipping-container farms modified with networked sensors and growing environments. All farms are interconnected and they can be used by other research institutions or by corporate cafeterias. Another innovation is the Food Computer, a 2-by-2-foot cube with micro-sensors, an LED light bar, and an irrigation system. Users can change the temperature, the CO2 level, the amount of nutrients in the water, the water temperature. The Food Computer is an open-source food bot for enthusiasts to create a community. What’s been holding AgTech back is that none of the black boxes and systems talk to each other.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Food Computers

OpenAg Food Computers will serve as tools for users to experiment, innovate, hack, and grow. Every time users grow and harvest, they will contribute to a library of climate recipes that can be borrowed and scaled so that users around the world can gain access to the best and freshest food.

OpenAg is developing an open-source ecosystem to enable and promote transparency, networked experimentation, education, and local production. These sustainable, shared systems are meant to break down the barrier to entry and spark interest, conversation, and maybe even revolutionize the way people view food.

Open Phenome Library

In current industrial agriculture, commonly single-crop farms grow massive amounts of one product and ship it around the globe. Food might travel thousands of miles and can take days, weeks, or even months before reaching consumers. This strains the environment, the cost to consumers, and affects the quality of the food we put in our bodies.

Inside of a Food Computer, climate variables such as CO2, air temperature, humidity, dissolved oxygen, root-zone temperature, and more can be controlled and monitored. Energy, water, and mineral consumption can also be monitored and adjusted through electrical meters, flow-sensors, and controllable nutrient doses throughout the growth period.

The complete set of conditions throughout a growth cycle can be thought of as a climate recipe, and each recipe produces unique phenotypic expressions, or physical qualities in different plants. Plants grown under different conditions may vary in color, size, texture, yield, flavor, and nutrient density.

With the creation of climate recipes, food computer users can import successful climates that have been created, tested, and perfected by other users. The recipes can be customized and optimized for different tastes or yield preferences and for various food production needs.

The result, an Open Phenome Library – a comprehensive database relating environmental inputs and species-specific phenotypic outputs, that will serve as a catalog for both scientists and growers.

The future of food

OpenAg’ ultimate goal is to create more farmers. For a more sustainable future of food production, people should be able to grow locally, from anywhere. The eventual introduction of large-scale “food data centers” will attract commercial operators in and around future cities, as well as food companies invested in securing stable supply chains of agricultural products.

As the technology/hardware costs go down, the economics will start to make sense, and we will begin to imagine a future which harnesses the power of distributed food-computing across a global network of innovators and producers to achieve a flexible, open, and responsive agricultural system.

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Student comments on OpenAg — Farming For The Future: Building a Digital World Farm —

  1. BMC, fascinating article! I think while some may be skeptical on the cost/benefit analysis of such a digital and capital intensive apparatus as you have described, I do think there is an area that has high potential to use a digital farm. The International Space Station has been growing crops and testing agriculture for some time now. And just last year, humans ate a non-Earth grown vegetable for the first time:

    As NASA has laid out as well as other entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, there will likely be a mission to Mars at some point in our lifetime. But given the high cost (up to $10,000 per pound) and long duration of the journey, humans will not be able to sustain themselves without an ability to grow crops. Having a high throughput feedback loop as the digital farm and open source sharing you stated will be crucial to collective learning and success in farming in space. I think this provides a very important first step toward realizing that dream.

  2. Interesting blog BMC. I can see the value of open source agriculture, but am left wondering here what the business model for OpenAg is. Are they a non-profit looking to sustain themselves minimally through government grants? Is there a way to monetize any of this? If not, can they reach scale as an NGO? Wikipedia has an operating budget of $61M ( and has hundreds of thousands of contributors to make it work at scale. Who is currently incentivized to contribute here and who is in charge of accuracy? As great as this idea is, it is one of those that works best at scale and I feel their biggest road block is not how to use digitization (they have that covered) but how to create a growing and sustainable organization.

    I can imagine perhaps they partner with a government looking to create more local farming to decrease food security issues, or universities who believe in open research.

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