While I find the concept of growing your own food alluring, I actually hate farming. I hate gardening. I hate pulling weeds, fighting insects, adjusting sprinkler schedules, and still getting inconsistent and unpredictable results. The very nature of these organic processes are the antithesis of what I strive for in electronic and software design: clarity, predictability, and simplicity.
That might sound strange coming from an engineer working for an ag-tech company, and even stranger from the son of a John Deere farm equipment sales manager who grew up on a dairy farm in Northern Ontario, but ever since my parents bought our first home computer in 1979 my future was destined.
One of my old managers had a saying: if you have a very difficult problem to solve, which engineer do you assign it to? His reasoning was that you gave it to the laziest engineer – because they’d find the simplest solution.
The confluence of these two aspects of my personality – disdain for the unpredictability of organic processes, and “laziness” as an engineer – actually are a perfect driver for my passion in developing the automation systems for Boxcar Central and Tiger Corner Farms. I want to grow my own food, but I want it to be as simple and hands-off as it can possibly be.
When I started working for Boxcar, a few employees had “mini farms” set up on their desks to test the systems we were developing for the container farms. Growing food on your desk as part of your job seemed kind of cool, but it also looked like a lot of work. Beyond planting and harvesting, water levels and nutrient levels had to be constantly maintained and so forth. That wasn’t for me, but I was still intrigued.
It was a challenge. I made it a personal goal to create the ultimate in lazy farming, and have it showcased on my desk. I wanted to create a system where I planted seeds on day 1, harvested plants on day 30, and literally did nothing in-between. My laziness became my inspiration.
At the time, the container farm business was quickly ramping up, and they were actually having the same challenges that I saw in the R&D setups. The day-to-day maintenance was significant, and when you scaled up to 4, 5, or even more containers it became laborious.
At the push of our resident horticultural guru, I embarked on developing an automated dosing system which would take the pH and conductivity data we were measuring in the tanks and use that to automatically add nutrients or adjust pH levels, to keep the readings at the ideal settings. It was one of these “hey, could you do this…” type of side projects, and over the course of a few days we had a makeshift prototype up and running in one of the farms. Almost instantly, the TCF team was asking me to build dosing units for all of their farms – both due to the reduction of labor as well as to the extreme consistency of results that automating those processes delivered.
That development drove me to finally build my own desktop R&D system. I built a doser that managed nutrient levels, pH level, as well as keeping the water level in the tank consistent. I used the excuse that I needed a test platform to justify the investment, but it was just as much a testament to my ultimate laziness.
I finally had my “hands off” farm. It’s been running for about 6 months now, and literally the only things I do to maintain it are plant seeds (or wait for one of our amazing crew to drop some left-over seedlings into open spaces), and top off my water reservoir every couple of weeks when it looks low. It has been so reliable that I don’t even think twice before heading out on vacation or a long weekend, leaving the plants to be taken care of by the automation systems. It’s been so effective that I’ve produced more lettuce than I can consume, and have ended up with a few overgrown plants that looked more like Christmas trees than produce.
I even built an 18-hole NFT system for use at home, so that I could “do R&D at home too.” It’s happily producing a full head of lettuce every other day, keeping my kids and I in an over-supply of delicious greens.
I never saw myself as a farmer, but I’m exceptionally happy that I’m able to have a job where I can use my skills and my quirks to help deliver value to such a vital industry, making locally-produced food affordable and accessible to people all over the world. Life is good.
Contact us to learn more about how Tiger Corner Farms and Boxcar Central are working together to make it easier for farmers to bring fresh local produce into their communities.
Click Here to see a time lapse video of Boxcar’s Desktop System.
Kevin Cazabon is the Product Manager for Boxcar Central, focusing on development of the embedded controllers and automation systems that run farms and breweries. He has a diverse background in hardware and software development, as well as marketing, in a variety of high-tech industries. He is a self-professed computer geek, and when he isn’t spending quality time with his two children, he enjoys playing classic rock on bass and drums with his band.