Growing food indoors usually happens at a small scale: If you happen to have enough natural light, or an LED-lit gadget on your countertop, maybe you have a few herbs in your kitchen. But a new system, called the Click & Grow Smart Farm, lets city-dwellers turn a pantry or closet into an ultra-efficient indoor farm that can grow hundreds–or even thousands–of plants in a year.
At a larger scale, in commercial systems like this vertical farm on a vacant lot in Wyoming or these cloud-connected greenhouses designed for rooftops, growers typically use aeroponic or hydroponic systems with a network of sensors. But those systems are too expensive for most DIY farmers at home, so the designers behind the Smart Farm took a different approach.
As in their previous product–a countertop gadget that automatically tends to plants, no watering required–the new farming unit relies on “smart soil,” engineered in collaboration with academics from two Estonian universities. The soil helps keep plants alive with little input from humans. Everything can be monitored through a mobile app.
“The soil is the unique part of our system,” says Mattias Lepp, CEO of Click and Grow. “It looks like a sponge, but it’s very natural, using materials like peat and cocoa to create a structure that regulates the aeration in the roots, the nutrients, the pH level, and the nutrients, and adjust accordingly.”
In typical hydroponic systems, something like the moisture level would be monitored by sensors, adding to the cost. “In our system, the smart material does everything,” says Lepp. “That’s the reason the technology is so cheap and affordable. Because of the smart soil, we believe people can start growing food at home.” The Smart Farm starts at $500, versus potentially tens of thousands for a state-of-the art wired hydroponic system.
The units, which look like glass cabinets filled with trays of plants, can grow salad greens, tomatoes, chili peppers, herbs, and eggplant. By the fall, the company plans to offer a few more options for their “seed cartridges” for the system, like strawberries.
The cabinets can be scaled up or down in size for a single family or apartment building. A small four-shelf option grows 64 plants at once, and a larger version grows 250. Click & Grow is also testing the technology with large commercial farms. “Maybe in a couple of years we’ll have a Smart Farm factory,” says Lepp.
Lepp envisions farms in the basement of apartment buildings, or in a building that would serve an entire neighborhood. “It’s clear that produce is going to have to be grown closer to homes,” he says. “There are too many problems right now in traditional agriculture.”
Like hydroponics, the system saves water; the technology uses 95% less water than traditional agriculture.
The biggest challenge, Lepp says, will be shifting habits so people become accustomed to growing tomatoes at home rather than going to the grocery store. “One advantage is the food will be cheaper,” he says. “You have an initial cost, but ultimately you can grow fresh herbs for less than buying from Whole Foods. This is our goal–that people can get very fresh food they’ve grown themselves at a good price.”
The units are available now on a build-to-order basis, and will be produced for full-scale distribution in 2016.