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Tandon’s Newest Crop of High-Tech Farmers Garners NYU Green Grant

A Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Initiative Aimed at Improving Urban Agriculture Wins Big

urban farm lab

Update:

Building on the success of their 2018 Green Grant, Tandon's aquaponic farming project has garnered a 2019 award as well, this one to be used to introduce increasing numbers of students to the field. Participating students will pursue independent projects, taking responsibility for the farm in the Tandon MakerSpace and engaging with the thriving local farming community. Thanks to the Green Grant program, Brooklyn is getting greener all the time.  

Originally published 11/1/2018:

If you don’t believe that Brooklyn can be a great place to become a farmer, then you don’t know NYU Tandon very well. Sustainably growing viable crops in a crowded urban environment takes technical know-how and a can-do spirit — qualities Tandon students have in abundance. 

A project dubbed "We Are the New Farmers" (WATNF) got its start here in 2016 when a group of students conceived of a fully enclosed tabletop environment that could house 20 plants, which thrived thanks to a “food computer” that monitored climate, energy use, and growth. (They were aided in its creation by an award from the NYU Prototyping Fund.)

The group later developed a commercial refrigerator-sized prototype, which they maintained in the Tandon MakerSpace and which could nurture four times as many plants. Soon, they incorporated such innovations as an aquaponics system that housed fish whose waste could be used as fertilizer, and an algae reactor, which allowed otherwise wasted light to be harnessed to grow a highly nutritious secondary crop.

That student project ultimately morphed into a commercial enterprise: We Are the New Farmers — co-founded by alumni Jonas Günther and Michael Udovich, along with Dan Bernstein — now grows, packages, and sells fresh Spirulina, a blue-green algae that has proven to be a nutritional powerhouse, with all essential amino acids and numerous other vital nutrients, including B vitamins, iron, and manganese.

Despite the demands of their busy enterprise, the founders preserve a strong relationship with the school, and a spin-off initiative is now part of Tandon’s Vertically Integrated Projects program, which allows students to collaborate on a multidisciplinary project for up to three years. WATNF-VIP is being led by Ph.D. candidates Omar Gowayed, who was an undergraduate participant back when WATNF was just getting off the ground, and Alexandra Seidenstein, who lectures in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

The goal of the project is not only to teach students how to apply their individual fields of interest to urban farming in a hands-on aquaponic setting, but to fully immerse them in the concepts of community engagement and sustainability.

The engagement part of that mission is already in total effect: a cohort of excited students has signed on, and their plans include building a Ferris-wheel style growing system and completely rebranding the project as the Urban Food Lab (so as to eliminate what has been some confusion between WATNF’s commercial initiative, which is based at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the student work at Tandon).

Earlier this month, the soon-to-be Urban Food Lab garnered a $20,000 NYU Green Grant, a highly competitive award given to those working to advance applied research and design and demonstrate the viability of best practices and technologies for sustainability, among other aims. The group will use the prize to fund individual projects, send participants to outside agricultural classes and events, and aid in the rebranding efforts.

“We are hoping to offer a potential solution to the environmental problems of land use, water consumption, resource depletion, and water pollution during the necessary process of feeding our communities,” Gowayed explains. “The NYU Green Grant is of enormous help to us, as is the staunch support of WATNF’s founders, Professor Anne-Laure Fayard, MakerSpace Founding Manager Victoria Bill, and many other members of the Tandon community.” He added, “Even Dean Jelena Kovačević is a booster; she recently tasted tomatoes we had grown and tweeted that they were delicious.”