FarmPod goes to school
MeowWolf, which sprouted in an old bowling alley off Cerrillos Road, is not the only game-changing venture borne last year from Santa Fe’s creative heart, gutsy soul, and loving consiousness. FarmPod, which sprang into action in the Solana Center, could end up having an even deeper impact on civilization.
True, FarmPod has already gone missing fromits 2016 location in front of La Montanita Coop, but it moved to Santa Fe Community College and is vigorously growing food. Already you can take courses in aquaponics, learn all about the pod, and then — if you’re smart, committed, andmaybe a little lucky — start feeding the world.
Regular travelers ofWest Alameda will remember the bizarre two-story edifice ofwhich I speak. Starting as a standard 20-foot-metal-storage-container, the pod quickly grew a greenhouse on top. The system, with its yummy-looking strawberries, lettuce, greens, herbs, and fish got press inThe NewMexican, and it even made the evening news.
Invented by local computer expertMike Straight, his “Farm of the Future” has four fish tanks downstairs and 600 plant-growing stations upstairs. According to the website www.farminapod.com, Straight’s goal is to manufacture highly automated FarmPods for use by restaurants, schools, resorts, hospitals, neighborhood markets, community supported agriculture, shelters, aid agencies, and communities.
Compared to other forms of agricul- ture, in aquaponics systems inputs are astonishingly low and yields are surprisingly high. Although it’s not as physically demanding as typical farm-labor, aquaponics requires regular monitoring, precise data analysis, instant decisionmaking, and at least a splash of intuition. If aquaponics is not a silver bullet for humanity, it seems destined to help catapult mainstream culture toward a more sustainable society.
Enter 25-year veteran aquaponics-guru Charlie Shultz, who recently moved to Santa Fe. With his team of dedicated SFCC students, Shultz has been robustly testing Straight’s pod. First, Shultz and his students learned that the water in the FarmPod’s fish tanks took a long time to warm up. This made conditions difficult for the fish and the crops. The water is warmer now, and the pod is cranking.
The class also learned that the irrigation emitters used in the pod’s vertical planting towers get clogged easily. Now, towers are maintained daily. The fix— a few pokes with a paperclip — is easy, but the threat of death on the high-tech farm still looms. A third challenge students discovered was that working with the pod’s vertical planting towers involved a significant amount labor compared to working with the horizontal aquaponics beds that the college maintains in its neighboring geodesic dome greenhouse.
Straight’s ultimate goal is to sell FarmPods all over the world. This meant he had to move hismanufacturing operation to a port city, so he moved to the island of St. Croix. He was lucky to convince Shultz to maintain and monitor his prototype here in Santa Fe to report back on all of the pod’s successes—and challenges—that new technologies have. As Straight travels on, let’s thank himfor bestowing Santa Fe with his complex and hope-inspiring invention and for leaving it in such qualified hands.
Nate Downey started Santa Fe Permaculture in 1992, authored Roof-Reliant Landscaping (2008) and Harvest the Rain (2010), and is the president of PermaDesign, Inc. He can be reached via www. permadesign.com or 505-690-7939.
Mike Straights’s FarmPod grows food at its new home in front of the geodesic dome greenhouse behind the Trades and Advanced Technology Center at Santa Fe Community College. Below, Olga Ascoli and Billy Roop, students of aquaponics at SFCC, say one of the most important tools for a FarmPod is a paper clip