The Open Agriculture Initiative is using its OpenAg Food Server™ shipping container farm to research cotton production. We’re working with the world’s largest cotton textile manufacturer, Welspun, to develop indoor propagation techniques, like hydroponics and aeroponics, and to better understand cotton’s ideal growing environments. I led experimental design and propagation at our Food Server facility in Boston from 2017 to 2018. Along with our mechatronics team, I helped build out a mirror copy of our shipping container system at the Welspun manufacturing center in Anjar, India. We’re now using the two platforms to run parallel experiments, testing local genetics against programmed environmental treatments.
During my previous station at Harvard, I raised 35 local woody plant species in closed environment growth chambers, testing their “budburst” response to an array of spring temperature and light treatments. Raising cotton in the OpenAg Food Server™ is an extension of this work, being a woody species itself. Here the environmental treatments are comprised of high and low nutrient concentrations in the root zone, and plant individuals represent two sets of genetics.
I led the five month grow of 36 cotton plants from seed to harvest in the Boston Food Server (video above), collecting similar datasets on plant phenology and morphology (e.g. timing of flower production), and plant height. I also designed and built the infrastructure systems in which the plants were propagated, including LED lighting and modular hydroponic systems. More info on those can be found on my OpenAg Food Server™ page. My final harvested cotton product is currently out for USDA quality testing. Data updates to come.
The harvested product is also set to be turned into a denim piece by an undisclosed fashion designer (mystery!) and Media Lab collaborator. The designer exclusively uses sustainable materials for their fashion pieces. It’s a fun collab, and I see it as another extension of what motivitates my work at the Media Lab. In building a tool for knowledge forwarding in the field of plant science, I’ve created a product for human expression.
In 2018 I worked with OpenAg’s lean mechatronics team to build a mirror copy of the OpenAg Food Server™ in Anjar, India. The platform provides Welspun with an on-site laboratory for running horticultural experiments in parallel with OpenAg in Boston. The build-out was both a challenge and a thrill. Before the trip, I documented and paletized our full bill of materials, a list comprised of hundreds of components for infrastructure installs ranging from custom HVAC, LED lighting, and irrigation systems. And we were building in rural India, so forgetting any components wasn’t an option. It felt like we were packing for space.
The OpenAg team executed. Alongside Welspun mechatronics engineers, and now new friends, we built the OpenAg Food Server™ in under a week. The seedlings we planted before departing are alive and well, and should be blooming flowers any day now, according to our remote cameras.
The most trying moment of the trip occurred when I realized I’d forgotten a pack of ¾” NPT threaded hose adapters. The component was the size of my thumb, but our automated irrigation system depended on it to work, and McMaster Carr doesn’t exactly deliver to Anjar, India. I took a trip into town, to a see a guy—The Guy—who I was told would be the one, if any, who might sell the coveted brass fitting. The man's name was Rameshwar. I arrived to his shop via taxi. We shook hands. He served me a cardamom tea, with salt to taste. I sketched the part on a piece of paper sitting across from him at his desk. Mechanical engineering was our shared language. Before I finished the drawing, he said, “Come with me.” Rameshwar led me through an Employees Only type of door toward the inventory side of his shop. He looked for no longer than five seconds at a garage door-sized wall of small unlabelled green boxes, and then pulled one out with his index finger. “This is what you’re looking for.” It was the adapter. I headed back to make our WaterBot irrigation line work with the push of a button. Amazon Prime, eat your heart out.