by Sierra Clark and Amy Ng

US (RI): 5 vertical farm projects incubating at Brown University

Young people want to be farmers, but not in the traditional sense. The emergence of vertical farming, hydroponics, and the local food movement are inspiring college students across the country to think about how to grow food sustainably. At Brown University, multiple groups of students are working on indoor agriculture projects. They are all connected by the desire to do work that matters in a growing field.

by Sierra Clark and Amy Ng

Industry research leaves students skeptical of vertical farming
Undergraduate senior Sierra Clark first learned about vertical farms after interning for Indigo, an agriculture tech company in Boston. She grew up on a farm, so it was initially difficult to comprehend growing plants indoors without soil or sunlight. After researching more, she was inspired by the way vertical farming touted to save resources. She kept thinking how her home state of California needed a water-efficient way to grow food, given years of drought. In order to learn more, she created two courses at Brown and recruited fellow students to learn with her.

Through the first course, Research and Education on Vertical Farms, Clark and Melissa Isidor focused on the question of whether vertical farms are a sustainable way to grow food in cities. After visiting multiple farms, speaking to experts, and reading books such as The Vertical Farm and Plant Factory, they were left undecided. Because vertical farms are expensive to build and maintain, the numbers suggested they made most sense in places lacking natural resources, such as the Middle East or Northern Canada. The two students shared their findings by holding monthly Lunch & Learn talks, creating a vertical farm field guide, and putting together a talk called “The Future of Food” which brought Dickson Despommier to campus.

The second course, Business Plans in Indoor Agriculture, was focused on identifying industry problems and needs. A team of four students––Clark, Davin Lewis, Amy Ng, and Zach Pockrose––interviewed 60 growers, suppliers, and academics to collect quantitative and qualitative data. They identified three major problems. First, a lack of standardization is decreasing efficiency of the industry. Many companies have individualized methods or have patented their work which makes industry “best practices” unclear to new and current farmers. Second, capital and operating costs are expensive, while margins are rather slim. Lights and labor are two major cost concerns, which ideally will be slightly alleviated as LED costs decrease in coming years. Third, there exists a huge knowledge gap. Farmers need help with business and marketing, while business people need help growing. The team is writing a business plan addressing this third concern.

Building systems illuminates specific costs for in-home projects
The Lunch & Learn Vertical Farming series led to two different build projects.

Clark, Ng, along with Brown Entrepreneurship graduate student Siddhant Agarwal and Rhode Island School of Design alumnus Ari Kohorn, are building a high-pressure aeroponics system in the basement of a non-profit student housing co-op. The system will use mist rather than a stream of liquid to feed plant roots. Aeroponics is more complex to build, but expedites plant growth due to increased oxygen root exposure. Like any system, aeroponics comes with its challenges such as clogged misting nozzles and the risk associated with power failure––both causes for quick plant death. The team sees the project as a fun learning opportunity that will teach them how to build systems and grow lettuce.


Basic aeroponic system set-up.


From left Sierra Clark, Sid Agarwal, Ari Kohorn. Amy Ng not shown.

Almost all materials were sourced from Amazon, Walmart and Home Depot. They chose T5 fluorescent-powered lights to reduce cost. The system will cost $1,300, and includes a reservoir and two tiers of grow units. The design eliminates a seedling site since seeds are grown directly on fleece attached to each grow unit. They plan to feed the co-op with the lettuce they grow. The students have also built smaller aeroponics systems and a hydroponics system.


Hydroponic system.


Cannabis cloning aeroponic system.

For the second build project, four students created a beautifully designed home-use hydroponics system for a course called Projects in Engineering Design. The team was comprised of four senior mechanical engineers: Cat Hebson, Carrie Manteiga, Josie Natrasevchi, and Kenny Volkmann, who were inspired to build something that could grow food year-round in a small space. This idea was originally sparked by an interest in permaculture and a Lunch & Learn talk which convinced them to use hydroponics instead of soil.


From left Kenny Volkman, Cat Hebson, Carrie Manteiga, and Jose Natrasevchi.



The team laser cut and pieced together the entire structure from scratch. The final product is tall––standing at six feet and made almost completely with wood. The system includes a hidden reservoir tank, a seedling bed and two rows of grow trays. Some neat design features include adjustable lights which can be shifted higher as plants grow, a hidden tilt that allows water to flow through the system while appearing horizontal to the viewer, and a temperature regulation system that notifies users to put in ice cubes when the reservoir water is too warm. The system cost $530 to build and requires $240 per month for energy and water.

PhD student project turns into a business venture
One year ago, Brown PhD Neuro-Engineering graduate, Jacob Komar, became fascinated with the idea of creating a vertical farming business. Komar and his team of three plan to be a major supplier of aeroponics growing systems through their startup Fresh Local 52. The company will sell 1,000 sq ft aeroponic turnkey farms that include an aeroponics system, hardware, and software––all of which function together but can also be purchased as separate pieces.

“Right now, people are buying from a bunch of different vendors. It will be easier and more efficient if people can buy everything from one place,” Komar says.

With four academic degrees in hardware and software, Komar believes Fresh Local 52’s greatest value add will be their control systems. “Currently, there are no turnkey farms that can aggregate data and analyze it in a meaningful way,” he says.

Another major issue with fully integrated systems, Komar found, is cost. Aeroponics systems can cost thousands of dollars, despite being relatively cheap to make. Fresh Local 52 is committed to bringing quality farm products at the lowest price possible.

About the authors
Sierra Clark is a senior at Brown University graduating with a degree in cognitive neuroscience. Her work outside of school is focused on sustainable agriculture and nutrition. Previously she has worked for agriculture tech and digital health companies. In the future she plans on starting her own sustainable farm and offering educational services to future farmers.

Amy Ng is a senior at Brown University graduating with dual degrees in business and environmental studies. Amy is dedicated to food security and interested in providing sustainable agriculture services to undeveloped countries. She plans to work with Sierra in closing the knowledge gap for future farmers.

To learn more about these courses or student projects, please contact Sierra Clark at sierra_clark@brown.edu.

Source: Agritecture

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