James O’Brien Farms Garden Technologies

The next time you see a kid hunched over a smartphone screen, oblivious to the world, don’t assume he or she is idly Snapchatting, sexting or searching for Pokemon.

If the teenager is James O’Brien, he might be listening to a TED Talk.

And learning how to reimagine agriculture.

Not long ago James — a rising Staples High School senior, Oprhenians singer and Staples Players stage star — stumbled on a TED Talk about African farmers. Caleb Harper — director of MIT Labs’ Open Agriculture Initiative — talked about changing the world food system by connecting growers with technology. His goal is to grow delicious, nutrient-dense food, indoors anywhere in the world.

James learned that a shipping container-sized computerized device can help preserve agricultural knowledge, and maximize the effects of air and water on crops and plants.

He was especially intrigued to discover that a smaller device is available, for anyone to build and learn from.

James knew nothing about farming. He has not taken Environmental Studies at Staples.

But he downloaded the designs. When school was out in June, he went to work.

James now grows lettuce — in a tiny bit of water, not soil. Software monitors every aspect of growth. Every time he looks in his box, James learns about chemistry, physics and circuitry. (He now knows, for example, that lettuce grows best with 16 hours of light, followed by 2 hours of darkness. The device controls those hours.)

James O'Brien, with his home-built lettuce box.

James O’Brien, with his home-built device. Inside, he grows lettuce.

Inspired by his lettuce — it grows much more quickly in water than in soil — he’s passing his knowledge on.

He’s shown his device to students at Mike Aitkenhead’s Wakeman Town Farm summer camp, talking with them about the importance of sustainability.

James O'Brien, talking to Wakeman Town Farm campers. Director Mike Aitkenhead is on the table at left.

James O’Brien, talking to Wakeman Town Farm campers. Director Mike Aitkenhead is on the table at left.

James has also started Workshop Garden Technologies. His goal is to use the Open Agriculture Initiative’s Food Computer platform to educate and inspire coming generations.

“I want to create a space for kids to tinker and experiment like I did,” he says.

Meanwhile, his lettuce thrives.

Next up: strawberries, beans or tomatoes.

“There are lots of possibilities,” says Westport’s newest — and most innovative — farmer.

(For more information on James O’Brien’s Workshop Garden Technologies, click here or email workshopgarden@gmail.com)

James O'Brien - logo


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One response to “James O’Brien Farms Garden Technologies

  1. Michele Wrubel

    Thanks for sharing this story about James, who is as as kind as he is intelligent. So excited to see where he takes this initiative!