OpenAg for High Schoolers


Hello Neelam!

Thanks for sharing. I’m particularly interested in the research mentioned above. Specifically something i’m interested in is the genetic expression of anthocyanins in food crops and has a been a specific goal in most of my plant breeding efforts. I have found that cold temperatures (like consistent cold water) and bright sunlight (perhaps UV) tends to influence a plants expression of anthocyanins. My interest in this started when i planted some Indian Corn from an old thanksgiving decoration one summer and one corn (maize) plant out a whole planting of corn was completely purple instead of green! And i mean purple, no sign of green leaves or stems as far as the human eye could detect. Though i’m sure the chlorophyll was still present underneath.

I’m continuing to research anthocyanins and breed for it. Some of my breeding projects involving anthocyanins include Purple Indian Corn, Red-Podded Peas, Purple-seeded Peas, Red-seeded Peas, Watermelon with red seeds, soon to be tomato and bean projects in the future.

Keep up the good work! Most of my efforts have been to breed for genetic expression of anthocyanins and other traits, but i am aware that environment can play a huge role in phenotype expression. Perhaps a combined effort would be best. And i’d be particularly interested if you find adding UV LED lights and cold temperatures helps to increase anthocyanin expression in the lab and any other findings you discover.


I would love to hear more about the work you do. Please message me if you have any more questions.

Thanks for reading, and be sure to continue posting your results!


The Moravian Academy Foam Farm project has begun!

At my high school (Moravian Academy), the Foam Farm project has begun!

As you may know, I was an intern this past summer at the MIT Media Lab OpenAG Initiative, and I have brought the concept as well as a food computer prototype back to my school to extend the work during the school year. We have assembled our first official team of #nerdfarmers, and we are getting ready to start building and developing our own digital farm. We have a nice mix of coders, scientists and socially-interested students, so we should see a healthy diversity regarding perspectives and contributions. In addition, we will also educate the rest of our students about what we are doing from farm construction through our first harvest on my blog; as well as this Forum.

Check back frequently to see a weekly update on our progress and please ask questions!
People from all over the world are learning about the technologies and ideas we are generating and spreading through open source collaboration. In fact, Caleb Harper, who is the director of the OpenAG lab and my advisor this past summer, just spoke at The White House this past Monday at the South By South Lawn (SXSL) event where he talked about the potential opportunities of open source agriculture. Check out the video of his talk here!

Even if you are not interested specifically in food, you should still follow our progress as the open source model is a great platform for a variety of other business and technical opportunities. As Kimbal Musk has stated in many of his talks: ‘Food is the New Internet’ and in my opinion there are some very exciting times ahead.


Thanks Neelam! And same to you. Sure, i would love to include a few links and pictures to relevant topics i mentioned about above in regards to plant breeding and anthocyanin expression. I will do my best not to hijack your thread and be as brief as i can, but i will say that for anyone else following that has interest in this that perhaps a separate thread could be started specifically or even a new category on the forum could be created for talking about plant projects, genetics, and plant varieties and breeding.

First, i will say that many of my plant breeding projects (as many as i could) i have tried my best to take photos and post about them on my blog. I often seem to hop from project to project and my blog is a mix of technology related builds and gardening endeavors. Here is the link:

Here are some photos of some of the anthocyanin related plants that i have pictures of. Some of these are old pictures or even borrowed pictures in cases where i didn’t manage to take photos myself.

  1. An example of the fully purple Indian Corn i grew one year and the striking difference between “normal” corn. This is a borrowed photo as my photos were blurry and lost at some point. But it’s the best example of what is possible and what i experienced that summer. It was such a “WOW” moment that it inspired me to keep planting and keep tinkering and never believe anyone when they say something is impossible.

  1. An image of a blue tomato grown in my garden this fall 2016, in an experimental Conductive Helical Coil that i reverse engineered from a patent i found on the internet. Blue tomatoes are a rather new introduction to the gardening world but are finally starting to become wider available in seed catalogs. An No, these are not GMO bred, they are decedents from leaked seeds a few years ago that originated at Oregon State University by breeding wild tomato species with modern tomato varieties. The tomato breeding people are innovating with these at an incredible rate. So i look forward to what is available in a few years.

  1. Some photo’s of the Red and Purple Podded peas, and Antho pea seeds (antho colored pods and antho colored seeds are not linked). As well a link or two to relevant blog posts, etc.

A nice example of one of the good segregations of the F5 or F6 population of my iteration of the red podded pea project. A combination of traits first discovered by an amateur gardener from the UK in 2008. The rest of us are actively working on recreating her cross and innovating with our own goals along the way.

A variety i’m working with and trying to do crosses with. From the Nordic seed bank in Sweeden and Known as Biskopens or alternatively now starting to be sold commercially as Sweedish Red.

A variety i don’t remember who shared with me but i was fortunate to get a few seeds by a kind soul. I have been unable to locate any other people who have it so at this time i am considering myself as the only person who has seed for it. And i only having a handful at that. Originally sent to me with the name Purple Passion and reported as having purple seeds and purple pods. It has green pods and dark purple seeds and grows on small very genetically weak plants and is hard to grow. I am desperately trying to grow out more seed and also use it in breeding projects. I think i have 4 seeds from a successful cross this summer that i can grow out next spring that i hope produces something more interesting that the original. That reminds me, i need to try and take some photos of the F1 hybrid seed at some point as they look interesting as being half grey and half dark purple.

I hope to eventually be able to widely share seeds from these and any descendants in the future but plant breeding in a home garden and then finding the space and time and effort to grow out enough seed to share is difficult. Perhaps i should look into collaborating with the local University. Colorado State University is the closest to me and is also an original land grant agricultural college. I already collaborate with a man who lives in a similar climate to mine on the other side of the Rocky Mountains in Utah, he is amazingly involved in even more ambition breeding projects than mine and is currently having success breeding interspecific hybrids between squash species that don’t normally mix because of genetic barriers. So in that sense i am already working with “food computer” climate information, just without a food computer at this point in time.

Sorry this turned out to be a long reply in your blog / thread. I just wanted to give a comprehensive reply. Maybe to help spark your own plant breeding ideas and ambitions. I think there is incredible possibilities for innovation in plant breeding and i can’t wait to see what cool plants we all can grow in the near future. For more information visit the links i provided and my blog (as sporadic as it is).


The Moravian Academy Upper School has started a collaborative project with the MIT Media Lab OpenAg Initiative. The 7 selected students, along with my guidance, will be creating a prototype of a Food Computer, based on OpenAg technology. The version of the food computer that the MA students will be building is called a ‘Foam Farm’. Right now, we are in the first stage: ordering materials, and becoming familiar with the specifics of the project. Everybody is excited to learn, and we have many great ideas moving forward. Our goal through this project is to create a open source platform where high schools all around the world can access the information that we generate, and also build their own Foam Farms as they will familiarize themselves with the new and upcoming farming methods. We will be conducting different experiments in our farm testing effects of variables such as changes lighting, water and nutrients, and all of our results will be posted. Hopefully this will stimulate some discussion among some of the other schools and individuals who are interested.

We will start publishing about our progress and results soon, so be sure to check back!


What is sustainability in health care?

As I am graduating high school this year, I thought it would be interesting to think more closely about how sustainability can be incorporated into the healthcare industry. And I do not mean the manufacturing aspect, dealing with circular economy components related to material use and the manufacturing process. While the production process is certainly important, I am referring to the concept of incorporating elements of sustainability into sustainable health.

If we try to find a definition of sustainability, one common theme takes an ecological approach, discussing the ability of a system to be diverse and also productive, where each member of the system has a job, and contributes to the health of the entire system. When we apply this to environmental issues, we can think about manufacturing products that only use the materials that are needed, and the ‘waste’ can become part of another system. A healthy manufacturing system will find a use for all of the materials, while minimizing waste. An additional component of sustainable industrial activity focuses on preserving resources for future generations. This way, the industrial process acts like a natural ecosystem, where everything is used. Applying sustainability directly to human health is a little more difficult, but it is important as the population continues to increase.

When thinking about ‘human health sustainability’, if we relate to the environmental sustainability examples, we can think about human health as a platform for:

Maintaining and improving health throughout the lifespan
Incorporating new tools and technologies to improve nutrition
Not only look at how improved healthcare for the individual but also for larger populations
Identifying business opportunities where human and environmental health intersect. This can be in preventative health, food and nutrition, and treatment.

With an emphasis on health sustainability, it will be important for healthcare related companies to think about how they can contribute to sustainable health, as well as how they can build their business around the idea. Most companies have some sort of employee wellness programs, which encourage workers to participate in activities that encourage better health and disease prevention. Examples might include onsite gyms, fitness competitions to encourage participation, and financial incentives for active employees. Their thought is that healthy workers are more productive workers, and in the process, there is less lost time due to sick days, and other health related reasons. This first way, any type of company can contribute to sustainability goals, regardless of the type of business.

A second way for companies to contribute to health sustainability is more focused, primarily on companies that operate in the healthcare space. But this is still a very broad group, ranging from pharmaceutical companies to food companies. As consumers around the world are becoming more conscious about what they are eating and drinking, food companies can continue to offer products that have higher nutritional value, and fewer ‘empty calories’. They can also work to make these healthier products more affordable for a larger portion of the population. Many food companies, including PepsiCo, Campbell’s and McDonald’s, which are traditionally not known for healthy consumption, are starting to make this shift, and they are making it a core part of their business. This is a step in the right direction.

The principles of environmental and health sustainability support one another. As sustainability with regards to a growing population becomes a bigger issue in the coming decades, companies that embrace a philosophy that contributes to both can set an example for other companies to follow.


Today is an exciting day in Washington!

Take a look at what Caleb was doing at the White House a couple weeks ago pertaining to the future of science, technology, and food.


As the world’s population is growing and there is additional stress on natural resources, there is also an emerging problem in the employment sector: too many people and not enough jobs. With my growing interest in sustainability and health via agriculture, there is an additional component to sustainable communities that can play a big part in the growing ‘knowledge economy.’ One company, Sama, is helping low income workers contribute to what is described as impact sourcing, where workers in low income and developing regions around the world are trained in basic internet-driven tasks and placed on projects that can contribute towards the development of digital technologies. These tasks can range from tagging images to concepts that are part of a machine learning program. With the economy moving towards an ‘Internet of Things’ model, these are very valuable skills for these workers.

This will then become the foundation for technologies that are applied to many different industries, ranging from self driving cars to telecommunications. In the process, Sama is helping these workers develop the skills needed so they can enter the workforce and compete for permanent positions once their projects are finished. Sama’s CEO, Leila Janah, has built her business model for one of her companies around the principle of providing these opportunities to those in need.

Take a look at this recent video where Leila talks about some of Sama’s work using technology to tackle poverty. It is very inspiring!


Agriculture 2.0 is coming to Moravian Academy, and we will soon be ready to plant our first indoor crop after the winter break. Students at Moravian have started constructing the sides of the foam farm, which is essentially the controlled environment agriculture chamber where our crops will grow during the semester (see more about the foam farm here). Once all of the modules have been manufactured it will be time to assemble to boards and get ready to grow. Our group of 7 has been working hard to learn about the processes techniques that we will be using, and to familiarize ourselves with the new technology. Over the next couple weeks the foam farm will be completely assembled and the growing process will begin.

The personal food computer is a system that will allow us to grow crops right on the Moravian campus indoors, using no soil. Once the farm is built the sensors, lights, water system and other modules will be coded and programmed in order to determine the optimal conditions for the plants that we select to grow, and express the ‘phenotypes’ that we are looking to express. Through experimentation by trial and error and repetition, we hope to establish a ‘recipe’ that can be shared through the open-source platform created by the MIT OpenAg Initiative. By making the results open-source, people from all over the world will be able to view our recipe, utilize, and adapt it for their own version of their crops. The open-source environment is a great way to not only share phenotype recipes, but also to exchange scientific methods and to learn about others’ progress in a collaborative setting. This is the next generation of open-science food production.

Time to start hacking food.


Data Science and Machine Learning to Benefit Open Agriculture

To anyone who has read my posts, you may know that I spent this past summer between my junior and senior year in high school working as an intern in the OpenAG group, which is based in The Media Lab at MIT. The OpenAG Initiative is directed by Caleb Harper, and the mission of the lab is to democratize food, through the creation of ‘Food Computers’ and sharing the information so that anyone in the world with an internet connection can become a digital farmer. Climate recipes can be created and shared, and the transfer of knowledge requires nothing more than connectivity. The OpenAG Forum maintains a growing library of information that is freely available, and as the discussions in the Forum have shown, participation is growing.

As the information in the forum expands, one of the ideas behind the effort is to help turn agriculture into an information science. Just as technology is changing and literally transforming entire industries, Harper and others involved in this area believe that agriculture is next. With the availability of information around crop varieties, phenotype expression, and controlled environment growing conditions, there will be a need to make sense of this explosion of data, and it is a perfect opportunity for the growing fields of data science and machine learning.

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are certainly buzzwords in technology circles today, but beyond the hype, there is real potential for a data-driven framework to change how food is grown and distributed around the world. In addition to creating libraries, when we start to apply computer power to analyzing and making sense of the data, we will learn new things. It might take a human weeks or even months to read through scientific papers and lab trials to formulate an idea on how to optimize ‘climates’ (see climate recipe discussion in OpenAG), where computers can perform the same task with increased volumes, in hours. This allows the scientists to spend their time figuring out what to do with the data, and designing new experiments, freeing up their time from the more mundane tasks.

Some people argue that too much power can be given to computers, taking away the need for humans. Generally (and unlike what is portrayed in the movies), computers, robots, and artificial intelligent systems, can work with people to help create a better and more sustainable global food production and distribution system, benefiting a much larger segment of the population. Machine learning will be an important component in helping humans address the challenge of global hunger. Future articles on this site will start to explore this topic more in depth.


I’m curious if you guys have reached out to or Adafruit to try and strike up some sort of partnership.

Both organizations have shown interest in reaching out to educators and having a multi-disciplinary project like the PFC would be a boon for STEM related education.

With the PFC 2 in beta now, it seems like a perfect time to start collaborating for extra exposure.


@Bkirkland Do you have connections at either Adafruit/

We would love to get some help with software development/sourcing of parts for low-cost food computers.

@neelamferrari Amazing posts! I read this last year and had forgotten till I just came across your thread. @bennis is working at a high-school here in St. Louis on a project similar to the foam farm (MVP PFC: $300 Food Computer). We’d love to hear more about the spectrometers you used for plant analysis (or any other method of food analysis)!


@neelamferrari , I would love to see updates on this again.

I love Adafruit products. I have a ton. But i will also caution that sometimes (a lot) Adafruit marks up the price to make a huge profit. In that way they are emulating the old Radio Shack. Though i applaud the things they carry. Just mentioning that sometimes things on Adafruit can be found loads cheaper from other sources.