At the St. Louis Science Center’s GROW exhibit on agriculture, a metal box casts violet light on a dozen basil plants.
A St. Louis-based startup called MARSfarm built the growth chamber, which it calls a food computer. The company’s instructions on how to build them and program small computers to grow produce are posted online. The small team that runs MARSfarm is also teaching high school students in the St. Louis area how to build them.
The startup aims to help astronauts grow crops on Mars. But since that’s years away, the company is focused on teaching people how computer technology can be used to help address the increasing demands for food on Earth, said Peter Webb, MARSfarm’s founder and CEO.
“By shooting for Mars, we’re really igniting a passion and a curiosity that inspires a spirit of exploration and is much less focused on trying to solve the problems that all too often become overwhelming when people approach our food-supply chain,” Webb said.
It costs about $300 for the materials and plants used by a MARSfarm food computer. They can be bought at most hardware stores. Users also need a small computer, called a Raspberry Pi, which can be programmed to control growing conditions such as temperature.
“The sensor tells it it’s 75 degrees, the Raspberry Pi, as a computer, makes a decision and says we need to cool off the box, which turns on the fan to push out all of that warm air,” Webb said.
Webb used red and blue light, which combined to appear violet, to simulate sunlight inside the chamber at the Science Center. MARSfarm also is using that same chamber to help a Washington University engineer study plants grown with conventional fertilizer and those grown with the engineer’s experimental aerosol spray fertilizer.
Caleb Harper, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, promoted the idea of merging computer technology and agriculture to create “food computers” in a 2015 TED talk. Webb said he wanted to turn that concept into a product that people could build themselves. There are at least 150 people in the U.S. who are building MARSfarm food computers, according to the company.
Webb also had grown beans and vegetables at home and wanted to use his expertise in programming to improve the growing process.
“I had a whole wall of peppers, tomatoes, a lemon tree, a bunch of stuff growing,” Webb said. “The more I got involved, the more I realized how much work it was and how much easier it would be to have a computer to help automate some of these processes.”
It might seem strange to try and add computer programming to home gardening, but children don’t seem to question merging the two, since technology is so integrated into their lives, Webb said. Some of the students MARSfarm has worked with at Fox Senior High School in Arnold and Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in Ladue have gone on to pursue engineering majors after graduation. That’s the company’s goal, Webb said.
“We want them to start thinking of the farmer as an astronaut as someone wearing a lab coat, so they can still study a career like robotics and still apply that to agriculture,” he said.
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