The American farmer is a dying breed. The average age of the American farmer is 58, and less than 1% of the U.S. population identifies farming as their occupation. Urban farming has gained some traction in recent years but with options being between a repurposed vacant lot and a vertical garden it’s hard to see urban farming as more than a hobby for city dwellers with a green thumb. Eric Maundu and his farming and technology organization Kijani Grows view the future of farming in America in a different, more optimistic light. Their product- A Smart Aquoponic Gardening system, and their main initiative- One School One Garden, might just be the fresh air needed to breath life back into American farming.
Eric Maundu, owner and founder of Kijani Grows, isn’t a farmer; he’s an engineer with a computer science degree. Originally from Kenya, Maundu came to the Bay Area over a decade ago but it wasn’t until 2009 that he saw two big problems in the U.S. that if combined, he believed could make one large solution for many people. “There are all these unused spaces, and all these people without jobs,” Maundu explains in a video shot by faircompanies.com, “I can’t stop thinking that we can […] create good careers out of places that people neglect.” That’s when he developed his first Smart Aquaponic system.
Aquaponics combines aquaculture, the raising of aquatic life, and hydroponics, growing plants in water. An aquaponic system cycles fish water that is mineral rich with fish excrement through a hydroponic system that simultaneously fertilizes plants while cleaning the fish water. Since the soil in many parts of open urban areas is contaminated, growing plants in a system that doesn’t use soil is ideal, and has the potential to be installed anywhere. Maundu took his computer science background and applied it to aquaponics, the results being a pretty much completely automated aquaponic system that aside from initial set up and bi-monthly harvesting requires no human intervention. But what if something breaks in the aquaponic system? Maundu thought of that, he incorporated a twitter account into the software of his automation process that tweets whenever something breaks or is out of order.
Maundu thought of the system that takes the labor out of farming, but another obstacle the farming industry faces is interest. Getting children interested in farming is the first step in making sure there are farms for future Americans. Maundu started the One School One Garden (OSOG) initiative to help spur children’s interest in fisheries and farming. The initiative uses web based aquaponic gardens in classrooms as a hands on learning environment, then connects classrooms around the world with each other so children can learn how and what other aquaponic farmers are doing with their farms.
Traditional farming in the U.S. may be in decline, but when one industry steps out often another steps in. Maybe the decline of traditional farming practices in the U.S. means that there will be more opportunity for alternative farming methods to grow. American farms might just be shifting from the country to an urban setting, and not dying altogether. Farming could be one of the most lucrative careers in the next 20 years, the only thing holding it back is interest from younger Americans who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.