Urban Farming: From Microsoft to the Dinner Table

Apr 19, 2017   |   Aimee Sprung

Urban Farming at Microsoft. Photo credits: Scott Eklund.

Boston isn’t known for farming and agriculture, but we are known for our strengths in Technology, Collaboration, Innovation and Education. With organizations like 1776 naming Boston one of the top cities to enable collaboration to capitalize on the shift to a digital economy, it’s no surprise we can even apply these strengths to agricultural sciences. I see examples of our prizewinning advancements in technology along the entire farm to table continuum.

One of the truly special pieces of being a member of the Board of Overseers at the Museum of Science is participating in Davos on the Charles. Davos on the Charles is a unique event created by the Overseers, for the Overseers. Panels are created based on various topics of interest and different Overseers take positions on those panels, study up and present a unique perspective. In coordination with one of the Museum’s focus areas, this year’s event was focused on food.

I was a panelist on one of five panels along with three other overseers. Our panel was focused on The Future of your Food: Farming Engineered Foods and I chose to speak about urban farming – an area Microsoft is investing in at our headquarters in Redmond.

Aimee Sprung on a panel at Davos on the Charles. Photo: Museum of Science, Boston

Why is this an area of interest for Microsoft? Well, as our growing push for sustainability merges with industry, we need to be thinking about where our food in coming from and how it is affecting the environment and our bank accounts. We need to reimagine how we sustainably grow plants that sustain us in turn. And even though technology is just a tool, it is becoming just as important as shovels and soil in how we efficiently grow produce.

As farm-to-table dining gains more widespread adoption, it’s important to note the technology, innovation, and collaboration that support this initiative and make it a more sustainable practice.

Technology

Freight FarmsBuilt entirely inside a 40’ x 8’ x 9.5’ shipping container, freight farms are outfitted with all the tools needed for high-volume, consistent harvests. With innovative climate technology and growing equipment, the perfect environment is achievable 365 days a year, regardless of geographic location.

Of course, technology plays a big role in how we’re advancing agriculture. The number of manually harvested crops is rapidly decreasing, with startups like Harvest Automation bringing automated processes to planting, maintaining, and analyzing commercial growing operations. We’re even seeing AI being adopted into agricultural practices as indoor and vertical farming grow into more regular practices.

Innovation

Microsoft’s main campus in Redmond, for example, is growing produce on campus using hydroponics. This practically eliminates the need to transport as the greens are grown in the same buildings where they are prepared and served to employees. Hydroponics also uses 90% less water than soil based growing and by growing in a contained environment, it also eliminates the need for pesticides.

Microsoft has incorporated a Micro-greens project on its Redmond campus, where its cafeteria hosts an urban farming project to grow highly nutritious greens that are grown and served right on campus. This doubles as a cost-effective program that assists in reducing the company’s carbon footprint and is promoting a stronger investment in on-campus agriculture.

Collaboration

One significant food of the future challenge remains in equity in pricing and accessibility. There are food deserts in this country — and in neighborhoods of Boston. Boston’s Food for Free is partnering with Boston Public Schools to set up school markets — food market / food pantry conglomerates open to the community in local schools. Here, anyone in the community can shop for fresh local produce, learn about its origins, and commit themselves to sustainable practices in shopping and eating.

Boston’s Fresh Truck takes this same approach to celebrating healthy food culture, bringing fresh, affordable food to communities in need while providing community outreach, education and programming to promote equitable access to healthy choices.

Education

It doesn’t just end at the table. There’s strong need for education around food and sustainability in Boston, at Microsoft, and around the world, and this innovation is just a start. In the meantime, I look toward the Museum of Science, which just ran a charette to leverage strategy on how the museum can connect food to technology in the city of Boston. I can’t wait to see how the museum presents this in future exhibits and practices, and to follow the museum’s future explorations in food and agricultural innovation.

From where I sit at Microsoft, I’m curious to see how technology can improve efficiencies for farming, increase local growing / farm to table initiatives and maybe even allow me to be an urban farmer through sensors for irrigation needs or improving how we use space to grow. Could a parking garage become a storage facility for shipping containers that are growing dark leafy greens? Could I be making more sustainable choices in the way I shop and eat? Could growing my own produce provide more sustainable practices for others?

As I reflect on my panel at Davos on the Charles and the Urban Farming work beginning at Microsoft, it’s clear that technology will play a significant role in increasing sustainability in agriculture. I’m excited to watch as new innovations impact the farm to table continuum in Boston. Maybe there will even be some farming startups in this year’s class at MassChallenge – I’ll be looking for them!

To learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to environmental sustainability, head to the Microsoft Green Blog.

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Aimee Sprung
Aimee Sprung

To keep up with Aimee you need to be up early. Like 5 AM early. Then you have to squeeze in Crossfit, grow STEM education programs, collaborate with community leaders and still keep up with her family – 2 boys require high energy. Or you can hit the snooze and sleep soundly knowing Aimee has that all covered.