We’re always interested in the role that IT is playing in shaping how resources get used in the agricultural sector—figuring out how to grow and produce food more efficiently and using fewer resources will become more and more important over the coming years.
One experiment in urban farming is taking place right under our own roof here at Microsoft, run by Mark Freeman and the company’s dining services team, Dining at Microsoft. By growing food onsite and vertically integrating part of our food production, Dining at Microsoft has created a unique opportunity to increase the overall quality of the customer experience, improve the quality of the produce, and decrease the company’s ecological footprint.
The team is initially focusing on produce—primarily microgreens and lettuce—in aeroponic and hydroponic growing towers found in several locations on the Microsoft campus. Hydroponics use significantly less water than conventional farming– in some cases 90% less compared to conventional farming. The water, except for that which evaporates or is utilized by plants, is continuously recycled.
Automated cultivation machines called Urban Cultivators are being used to house and grow the produce. The watering, light cycles, and ventilation system are all automated and can be controlled via a control screen. The commercial-scale machines are capable of producing 16 trays of microgreens at a time, and can go from seed to harvest in as little as eight days. The microgreens and lettuce are used in on-campus dining to top entrees as well as incorporated into the fresh produce at Microsoft Café salad bars.
Growing produce inside can also help reduce pest pressures, so the produce is grown without using any chemical pesticides or herbicides. The microgreens grown are 100 percent organic, nurtured with 100 percent organic compost and grown with organic seeds.
As this experiment continues, Dining at Microsoft is always looking for additional ways to improve the growing process and to increase the efficiency and sustainability of current methods. One example of this can be seen in the evolution of lighting used to grow the plants. Previous uses of LED and halogen lights have now given way to cutting-edge plasma lights produced by iUNU, which are up to 30 percent more efficient than LEDs.
Says Jessica Schilke, who helps to run the program: “[The lights] bring out qualities in the plant that I’ve never seen under a grow light before…I think this is something that’s going to revolutionize urban growing and indoor growing and make it really possible to do not only what we want to do here to offset our greens production, but across the globe, being able to do more of our production inside.”
These nascent efforts taking place here at Microsoft mirror the similar demands for more efficient and sustainable food production that we can see being increasingly faced in small-and-medium-sized cities around the world. As urban and indoor farming becomes a greater necessity to meet those demands, the ability of technology to assist in doing so—for companies, families and cities—will be critical.