Twisted Fields on 89.3 FM: Local Revolution

Aaron

This is 89.3 FM KPDO and this is Local Revolution. I'm Aaron Murphy, and on our program today we're going to discuss the local movement. What does it mean to buy local? Why are local foods and clothing better when they're made closer to home? Is it worth paying extra to buy local goods? And are they always better quality, but also more expensive than goods from China? My guest today is Daniel Theobald, the founder of Twisted Fields in San Gregorio. Thanks for joining us today.

Daniel

My pleasure. 

Aaron

The coronavirus is currently at its peak here in central California. How are you coping with the virus at home and at work right now?

Daniel

The crisis clearly has taken a great toll on society and the economy as a whole. I tend to be a silver linings kind of person and look for the benefits that it's also providing, and I think in many ways it has helped us to re-examine our connections to the people around us. It's allowed us to re-examine our connections to the Earth, and to our food in ways that perhaps were not as poignant previously. Here at the farm, it has been great for us to be in a position to live in such a beautiful landscape with plenty of social distancing by nature. We don't take that for granted. We're very grateful for the opportunity that we have to be in an agrarian society here in San Gregorio and we know not everybody has that opportunity. There will certainly be a number of lessons learned and hopefully we come out better for it.

Aaron

Yeah, that does seem to be the case. A lot of farmers, I understand, in this area and all over the country as well as the rest of the world are running out of food if they operate at the retail level, supplying food to local families and stuff. Have you been experiencing any of that because of the virus where you're just sort of cleaned out by the demand?

Daniel

Yes, we have seen incredible demand, particularly for our eggs. It was challenging right at the beginning, we were donating a significant number of eggs to some charities. Now, we've just got such incredible demand, we've been rationing our eggs across a number of different customers. We have a range of customers, each who are asking us for more eggs than we can supply them. So, instead of just going to the the person willing to pay the highest price, we've decided to take an approach of spreading them out more evenly across the customer base to try and make sure that, to the extent possible, everybody has access to the fresh eggs that we provide.

Aaron

That's great. That's really equitable of you to operate like that. I understand that basically every farm supply store in the country is running out of baby chickens because everybody now wants to grow their own farm fresh eggs. Have you experienced any problems with the supply chain for chickens?

Daniel

Well, we're fortunate that we have the space here to do a lot of that ourselves, so we incubate a significant portion of our own chickens. We try and keep our genetic pool wide and varied. So we do bring in baby chicks from a number of outside sources periodically, just to keep our genetic pool diverse. We're big fans of genetic diversity. We don't try and create just one strain of chicken that produces the absolute perfect egg and in the process introduce all other all kinds of other problems. We really believe that for food security, biodiversity is our ally. I think maybe most people don't understand that large industrial farming really operates on a monoculture type of approach. They will find one strain of wheat, or corn, or chicken, and create a very narrow gene pool, because that particular DNA produces some favorable characteristics that help them with their bottom line. The problem there is that it creates a very fragile system; or a very fragile genetic environment where if something changes and that particular DNA no longer is appropriate or suitable or competes well, you can have massive problems.

Aaron

Right. Well, that's amazing that you raise your own chickens, that probably decouples you from the distribution chain that right now is breaking down. You must feel pretty self-reliant in that way.


Daniel

That's really the goal for us, to produce essentially everything we need here locally. Local production is best when it's truly local. I applaud anybody who is working hard to grow food locally. Unfortunately, many times it's more of a marketing gimmick than it is reality because they are essentially importing much of the supply side of that from elsewhere. So, again, I think we're fortunate that we're in a position where we can have the possibility of growing almost everything we need here locally on the farm. It's challenge, but at the end of the day, that whole self-reliance thing is really powerful when you see how something like a virus can disrupt supply chains across the world.

Aaron

Yeah, absolutely. I can see how some farms may call their products local, which, in one degree they are. But if you're buying grains in bulk, organic chicken feed from Asia, then it puts into question really how local are you, doesn't it?

Daniel

Yeah, all of these things are on a spectrum, obviously, and raising the chickens here versus shipping the eggs across the planet, that's probably a net positive. The more you can do locally, the better it is for the environment, and the better it is for the consumer. You've probably covered this in the past, but there's a tremendous amount of credible research that shows the nutritional content of food starts to degrade from the moment it's picked. Broccoli, for example, has particularly impressive vitamin content that's lost very quickly once disconnected from the ground.

Aaron

Wow.

Daniel

So the idea of actually growing food that's optimized for its genetic diversity and its taste, its flavor, its vitamin content, these are things that you can do if you're growing locally. If you are planning on shipping, then you really have to optimize your crops to ship. This is why at the grocery store we tend to find tomatoes that feel more like plastic than they do like food, and unfortunately they taste more like plastic than they do like food as well.

Aaron

Sure. 

Daniel

And that's simply because good tomatoes don't keep well. Tomatoes with good flavor, with the nice texture that aren't mealy, that really have that robust taste, those don't enjoy traveling on trucks. So by the time they get to the grocery store, they're done and nobody's going to buy them. So if you can if you can get the heirloom vegetables that are superior flavor, superior size, often times superior nutritional value, and get it locally, it's a win-win-win.

Aaron

Yeah, that's great. Do you do you grow tomatoes in addition to chickens? Actually, tell me about some of the things you grow there. 

Daniel

Yes, we are a research farm. Now, one of the things we realized early on is that we weren't going to be a particularly effective research farm if we weren't providing real goods and services to real people, because then the research becomes disconnected from reality. Our research goal is to understand and to help to solve the problem of how local organic farmers can operate profitably and produce a wide variety of crops for their constituents. We are operating in a community supported agriculture model, which means that people sign up for a farm share. They're essentially buying rights to part of the farm's output for a season. And that comes with some risk because there's no guarantees that the farm will be successful in any particular season. But it comes with tremendous amount of reward as well. What you're going to get is incredibly healthy food that's not covered in pesticides, actually tastes great, and is healthy for a lot lower cost than you would get it at a place like Wholefoods or Safeway. Those are good stores, but they have a very different business model. 

Aaron

Sure. 

Daniel

In addition to that, it also really helps people to understand where their food comes from and have an appreciation for the reality of farming, food, and nutrition. When you just go to the grocery store and pull things off a shelf, it's really kind of a travesty that there's a complete lack of understanding of our food supply and how that whole system works. So to get back to your original question, our thesis here is that we can use technology to effectively produce a wide range of crops, fruits, vegetables, and eggs in a way that's economically feasible. And on the technology side, we use a broad range of different approaches. On the one side, the sort of fanciest side, we're building a number of agricultural robots to help with some of the massive labor shortage problems that we're experiencing in the agriculture sector. On the other side, more practical farming automation projects such as RFID tracking on the chickens. Now, our chickens are completely pasture-raised. They are free to come and go as they please. They go out on to 127-acres and live a wonderful life and scratch for bugs, seeds, grass, and all the things that real chickens like to do. They're very happy. And we find that happy chickens really lay the best eggs and that makes a big difference. But how do you manage that effectively? It's not as cost effective to raise chickens that aren't in cages. That's just the unfortunate reality. So part of our research is how do you do this in a way that you can have it be economically feasible while being humane and producing a superior product?

Aaron

That's great. Do the RFID tags provide information to the consumers about the sort of daily activities of the chicken or any other thing that consumers might like?

Daniel

You know, that's a really great question. I hadn't really thought about that, but it's very possible that we could get to a point where we could essentially, on the carton of eggs, put which chickens laid those eggs in the future. We're not there yet.

Aaron

Yeah, that would be fun as a consumer. 

Daniel

Yeah. Here's the mommy of your eggs. One of the things that people really love about our eggs is that they're Easter eggs in the sense that we have brown, green, blue, orange, white, and speckled. You open up our dozen eggs and it looks like somebody dyed them. And that's part of what comes along with the genetic diversity side of things. But it's also just a lot of fun. And the whole idea with the RFID tags is when a chicken is out in the field doing what they do, they feel an egg coming on and they need to go in and lay their eggs, they basically go in and choose a nest to lay their eggs in and there will be an RFID antenna in each one of those nests. As that chicken enters the nest, it will register which chicken entered the nest. And then as the eggs are collected, we know which chickens have laid eggs. This does a number of things for us that can help us to identify problem areas. If there are chickens that are not laying eggs in the nests, it could be that they have found a creative place to leave their eggs out in the fields. And obviously we'd like to know that and be able to resolve that situation. If there's a chicken that is sick or having other problems, that helps us to identify it and resolve it. And then it also can help us to identify those chickens that are laying the best eggs and give special attention to those when we are incubating the next generation of layers.

Aaron

Oh, great. That's super interesting. I really I'm excited to hear more about your research. That sounds like it could offer a lot of benefit, for your operational efficiency, but also for consumers. So I would like it if you could explain to maybe listeners who don't know what an RFID is, because both of us have been talking about this and we both know what those are. But in a really simple terms, how would you describe the the collar that they're wearing?

Daniel

RFID actually stands for Radio Frequency Identification. It's actually a small tag on one of their legs, it's put on with a zip tie very loosely, they don't even seem to notice it at all and it's just like a little keychain, a little piece of plastic. It's got a small circuit board inside. It has no power source. And what happens is when it comes within range of an RFID antenna, it energizes that RFID tag and then there's a wireless exchange of information. So for anyone who uses a key FOB or a badge at work to open the door, those type of things, those are generally RFID systems. So you hold your card up to the door, it goes beep. The door opens. That's the exact same technology.

Aaron

Well, I definitely see how, in a way, you're distinguishing yourself also from a consumer standpoint by really maintaining quality. I think the argument, when we bring it back to the local discussion, is about not only the energy inputs and where did the grains come from to feed your chickens, but also especially for people that are concerned about the quality of the life of the chicken. I think what you're doing really offers a distinction to maybe not only justify what may currently be a higher price, but simultaneously you're also possibly using technology that can actually lower the price for consumers. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Daniel

You know, we recognize that if it's the best product in the world, but no one can afford it, that's not really going to make a difference. And it's also important to us to have high quality local food that is affordable to a wide range of consumers. This shouldn't be just for the Palo Alto elite, it should be something that local families can afford, and eat healthy as well. I don't know if you've heard of the term food deserts, but in some of the research that we've done with the USDA, food deserts are a real issue. What a food desert is, is when there is an area that really only offers convenience store food to the local families who don't have cars or other forms of transportation to go to a more conventional grocery store. And so those families will end up growing up on Coca-Cola and potato chips, right? No surprise. Diabetes is one of the biggest killers in our country right now. So using technology to reduce costs of healthy food is what it's all about for us, and and those costs generally come down to labor. There have been a lot of concerns, particularly in the media for the past few years about technology taking jobs and the whole human versus robots thing that is popular to talk about. The reality is that there is not a shortage of jobs in agriculture, but there is a massive shortage of workers. There are just not enough workers to even harvest the food. So you've got perfectly good food rotting in the field simply because they can't find workers to do it. Now, it's a twofold problem. One is that people don't want to do that work. It's often not easy work. The current economics of food have been driven by massive industrial conglomerates with large monocultures where they have figured out how to get the cost of producing that egg down to the absolute rock bottom bare minimum. And so it's a little bit of a catch 22 for the consumer, because you want to stretch your dollar as far as you can. That's what anybody who's trying to raise a family does. But on the flip side, in the longer term we're creating a problem for ourselves, that we can't get healthy food for a decent price.

Aaron

Well, that's where I think the virus is really maybe shaking up that whole catch 22 a little bit, don't you think? I mean, we won't know until the economy starts to improve.


Daniel

Yeah, is it going to stick or not.


Aaron

Yeah, that is definitely right, because I've even seen memes on Facebook. People are like, oh, this crisis came around and now I'm cooking homemade dishes for my family that I've never seen more, my kids are at home and playing outside and we're spending time together.

Daniel

That's what I call the silver linings. I think it's really interesting, to take a little bit of a diversion here for a second for the history of the human race, children and parents have previously spent their days together and you've gone out and you've grown or picked or hunted your own food. We have become not only disconnected from our food, but we've become disconnected from our families. For most of us in the human race right now, that's just the way it's always been as far as we're concerned, but we don't realize that this idea of parents and children being apart is brand new and we have not yet fully even comprehended the effects, good or bad, probably mostly bad, that are going to result from that over time. So it's really interesting to hear people reconnect with their families and start to understand what we've been missing out on because the Industrial Revolution said parents should go to factories and kids should go to school.

Aaron

Yeah, yeah. I've heard that. You know, statistically they're saying I think I've read that in the 1930's, or maybe the 40s, over like 30 percent of the American population was participating in farming in some degree or another. Now I think it's less than three percent of Americans and growing and growing. 

Daniel

That's right. Yeah, the statistic, as I understood it, was one hundred years ago, it was actually 70 percent, seven zero of people had a job in the agriculture industry and today it's less than three percent. I think it's less than two percent now, which is a good thing in that it has allowed us to pursue a broader range of activities, such as science, exploring the universe, arts, and education. Those are all good things, but there is a cost and I think we're just really starting to understand the long term implications of those costs. For example, in the United States, these are not exact numbers, but it's something like healthcare accounts for one third of the gross domestic product, meaning very roughly that one third of every dollar or one out of every three dollars spent in the United States is spent on something healthcare related. Now, that's crazy. It's absolutely crazy that we spend more money on healthcare than we do on food. I had a friend who was a little bit quirky, but he would always say to me, hey, I'd rather pay the grocer than the doctor. And, at the time, I kind of chuckled a little bit at that. But there's a lot of wisdom in that.


Aaron

You know, I want to actually get back to your farm, and I am interested in the use of technology. You talked a little bit about your use of the research robot and the technology with the chickens and everything. And I guess I did want to conquer that question. Like, what do you say to someone who is unsure about your farm? I'm curious to know what you'll say, that you're using a robot that could very well be taking jobs away from someone. What's your typical answer to to that situation?

Daniel

Yeah, yeah. Let me let me talk about that a little bit. And then afterwards I'd be happy to go through a list of all the different technology projects we've got going on, because I think you'd find that interesting. But yeah, the technology versus human labor question is something that has been at the forefront of human thought really ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But the actual case study goes all the way back to to prehistoric times, Homosapiens versus Neanderthals. Why did Neanderthals die out while Homo sapiens eventually dominated and thrived? There was about a five thousand year period where Homosapiens and Neanderthals coexisted on the European continent. But you saw this gradual shift of Homosapiens winning out. And, you know, this is all speculative. So nobody shoot me if there's more recent research. But, the old theory was that there were a lot of wars going on and Homosapiens were killing Neanderthals. But it appears that was probably not the dominant factor. It was that the Homosapiens were able to create technology that helped them to be more resilient. What do I mean by that? For example, Homosapiens invented the sewing needle and were able to start sewing clothing. Clothing allowed them to be more resilient to weather changes and a wider variety of climates. And it's also interesting to understand that these technology advances almost always benefit the weakest in society disproportionately, because the  strong people, well, they didn't need clothes. They were fine. It was the weaker and the sick that really benefited from having clothing and shelter and those type of things. Another Homosapien advantage was they had better communication. And when you are able to communicate more effectively, you're better able to trade, you're better able to understand the needs of those in society. Now, I think the most skeptical among us would generally say, well, yes, but technology generally benefits the rich and the poor just kind of get screwed. You know, that can happen. But these are things that you have to look at on a macroscopic level over the centuries, a lot of times. And technology always ends up benefiting society as a whole as as it becomes accessible and affordable. Just think about the Internet. The Internet is a great example. Are there bad things about the Internet? Yeah, I'd say there's lots of bad things about the Internet. But when you think about the positive impacts it has had on us in terms of education, in terms of freedom around the world, in terms of helping people get access to economic resources, that they need microloans and that kind of thing, the benefits are far reaching. So the whole technology versus jobs thing is a really complex subject.

Aaron

This tension really started in the loom worker area, right? The Luddites. 

Daniel

That's right. You know, they worked the looms. That was really slow work because every time those threads would cross, then you'd have to have a human being run this big needle all the way across it and then switch the threads over again. Well, one day, somebody came along and said, hey, I think I can build a machine that can do that part. Well, this caused a significant upheaval and the Luddites took their wooden shoes off and jammed them in the machines to protest technological unemployment, the idea that they would be put out of jobs by technology. Now, you can understand this if somebody feels like their livelihood is being threatened. Your first reaction is going to be to lash out at the thing that you think is threatening you. But on the whole, of course, yes, maybe some people changed jobs over time. There were not people doing the grueling work of pushing that needle back and forth all day long. I don't think anybody particularly enjoyed doing that. The technology reduced the cost of textiles to the point where common people, I'm air quoting common people, could start to afford decent clothing. While a small portion of people were disrupted in their careers for a short period of time, what you typically find in these scenarios is not that massive numbers of people are losing their jobs. In most cases, what happens is people start retiring as they normally would, and new people just don't enter these particular lines of work anymore.

Aaron

Sure. 

Daniel

Another great example of this is telephone operators. It's a very interesting example in that I think everybody appreciates the internet these days, it's an absolutely amazing thing that has enabled so much benefit for us. Well, you know, telephone operators sat there behind the console all day long, plugging wires in and out of a board to try and connect calls from one place to another. And when the automated switchboard first came along, there was some concern, oh, we're going to lose jobs. But I don't think anybody today is particularly upset about the loss of the switchboard job. You know, people retired from that job and new people didn't enter that profession. But the really interesting aspect of it is if we were to try and accommodate modern communications using switchboard technology, it would take many, many times the population of the entire Earth, like assume 10 to a 100 times the number of people on Earth to handle our communication needs that we have today. So there's always two sides to every one of these questions. Is somebody going to be upset that they can't be hunched over in the field all day long doing backbreaking labor picking strawberries? No, probably not. Do we need to make sure that we are thoughtful and sensitive about giving everybody opportunities to be economically stable and have an enjoyable life? Absolutely. But when we too tightly couple the two issues, we have kind of an unproductive stalemate. 

Aaron

Yeah. I thought of an example to support what you're talking about, which is the horse drawn carriages and the automobile, I think, when the technology is very clearly offering a benefit for people, they're not putting up nearly as much of a fight. You know, I don't see people, there were probably some, but not as many protesting that the government should bail out the horse drawn carriage and the stagecoach industries. I think maybe for a lot of people, it's a missing link. They don't see enough of the benefit to outweigh the short term loss of jobs. Maybe. Maybe it takes time.

Daniel

Yeah. A lot of it is just based around fear of the unknown. And I think that this is understandable given Hollywood's portrayal of robots. The word robot is really misleading. There is no robot. There will be no robots for the foreseeable future. What there is, is automation. And we have had automation, again, going all the way back to the automatic shuttle in the Loom. It's no different. Technology allows human beings to be more productive. It allows us to do more in less time. It allows us to do more with less money. Ultimately, this should be a good thing for humanity across the board. We just have to, again, be sensitive to make sure we're taking care of the the most vulnerable members of our society and not just leaving them out in the cold because they need the job that they used to do. No longer it is valued at the same level it was by society in the past. We have a responsibility to try and help retrain and provide safety nets for those categories of people.

Aaron

Absolutely.


Daniel

We can't abandon that responsibility. But the answer is not to stop progress. That that would ultimately harm the exact people we're trying to protect even more.


Aaron

And I think locally, in terms of you spoke a little bit about the lack of laborers maybe to do a lot of the work that needs to be done at farms in this area, the housing is worth mentioning, and maybe that's even part of that responsibility that maybe hasn't been held up, looking after people's needs who are on the lower end, typically economically, of society.

Daniel

Yeah, it's a bit of a challenge, and I want to be careful here not to get myself into too much trouble, but, I think our government sometimes is not quite aligned with their own goals. When I was considering buying this farm, I called a number of government agencies, San Mateo County, State, others, talking to them about what I wanted to do, why I felt it was important, and how my my goal is to help solve local and global food supply technology problems. I got all kinds of encouragement. It was all smiles and nods and yeses, but well, after I bought the property, everything changed. And I have run into nothing but red tape and challenges across the board. I don't think it's necessarily bad intentions anywhere, but it's just we've become so focused on regulation that we can't get anything done, right? We actually had some farm labor housing here that we had to take down because the previous owners had not crossed the T's and dotted all the I's. So, we had to tear down perfectly good housing. And we're trying to comply with all the local ordinances and everything to get farm labor housing built. Everybody that we talk to about working here at the farm says, yes, I'd love that, but I don't have housing. Can you provide housing? And we have to say, boy, we would love to, but we can't provide housing because it's taking us years and years to work through all the bureaucracy to actually build the housing that we would need to offer you. So that would be something that I would certainly draw people's attention to. I know that people who live in the city tend to favor lots of strict rules about things like Airbnb, and what people can build and what they can't build. You know, out here on the farm, it's a whole different world. And we're being killed by that. Access to labor is tied directly to access to housing. And if we can't have housing, we're just dead in the water.

Aaron

Yeah, I definitely see what you're talking about. And I think that's a whole other discussion. We could talk about that for a long time. So maybe I'll have to explore creating a show around that phenomenon.

Daniel

And I think if we stopped worrying about who to blame and we all just got engaged locally in actually doing good things to help people, I think you'd see a major turnaround across the board. But, you know, we all expect the government to fix all our problems and people get very, very passionate about that. My vote would be each one of us get out there and get involved directly in local community service efforts. The world would be a different place.

Aaron

Act locally, back on target here to the point of this show, I feel like we're getting a little far field, but I appreciate it. I actually am very much eager to tie something as innocent as food production to pretty deep philosophical questions that we're being confronted with all the time. And so I appreciate you going there with me a little bit about all of those pieces of it. But I do want to bring it back, talking about the global situation that we're seeing ourselves in right now with the pandemic and the shutting down of the of the supply chain for goods and services. Are there any things that you've had a tough time finding for your farm? I mean, it sounds like you're doing a really good job of really depending on your own energy inputs to operate. Is there anything that you're surprised by or that you've had to just make yourself maybe even locally because you haven't been able to find it through normal channels?

Daniel

Um, no. I think we've been very fortunate because our whole philosophy was self-reliance and complete local sourcing. We just haven't really run into that situation as much. So I think we're in pretty good shape other than the continual labor issue. You know, obviously, the pandemic is in some sense going to help with that, there is unemployment is going up significantly. That's not a great thing by any stretch.

Aaron

But, you know, maybe it will help bring more people back to agriculture type jobs. That could be interesting.

Daniel

Yeah, well, certainly everybody's interested.

Aaron

I've been looking online and apparently the searches for things like growing your own food and how to raise chickens has blown up, like everybody's trying to figure out how to how to start their own food and become more food resilient. I think it's entering the consciousness.

Daniel

Yeah. That's our mission - to try and help figure out better ways to do those things and then to share that knowledge. Let me just go through a quick list of our cool tech projects here, if that would be of interest.

Aaron

I would love that. Please do. 

Daniel

So we already talked about the chicken tracking, one of the really fun projects we're doing is called goatBot, which is a way of geo-fencing goats that allows them to roam freely in general. But we're able to guide them to the areas of the farm where we would prefer that they browse. How does this save money? Well, normally you would have to go and set up fencing every time you wanted to confine your goats to a particular area. And the fact that this is geo-fence solution can be done dynamically, it's a lot healthier for the land because you can move them around much more regularly and dynamically. So they're doing the right amount of browsing while not doing damage. This actually allows us to provide yet another input for our chickens because the goats will go out and they will eat things like brush and thistle and poison oak. Goats are pretty amazing that they can take all of that kind of random vegetation and turn it into high quality milk, and then we use that milk. We don't sell the milk directly. We use the milk to do things like make soap. But we actually feed all the excess milk to our chickens. Our chickens absolutely love the goats milk. It's a great supplement to their diet. And basically what it does is it extends their forage range because now chickens are essentially able to eat other types of vegetation and turn those into eggs. It's a two step process, obviously, but the project is pretty fun from that perspective. It's basically a collar for the goats, it has a wireless receiver in it and a GPS receiver, so it's constantly wiring back to our server where each goat is located, and then through a series of different types of inputs and stimuli to the goats, basically tones, we're able to help guide the goats to where we want them to go.

Aaron

Wow. 

Daniel

Another project, which is a lot of fun, is the Precision Farming Rover. So the Precision Farming Rover is a project that we are building to really act as a platform for app development for a wide range of farmers and other companies. The idea is that we are solving the basic robotic problems of how do you have a robot that can move from point A to point B on a farm safely? How do you manage the energy? How do you manage the networking and the data transfer? How do you deal with all those things? Those are hard problems that we can deal with. And then we provide that platform to app developers, very similar to people who write an app for your iPhone. The great thing about that model is some of the coolest apps that we have were made by teenagers who just had the ability to write some software, and they could never have done that if they had to build the whole cell phone from scratch. So this is really the model here. We provide the robot, the robot takes care of all of the hard stuff, and then they are able to write applications that solve local farming needs that we wouldn't even know about. A big focus of that project is to build it to be very, very low cost, very lightweight, and something that a small farmer, perhaps even in Africa, could afford and then maintain and repair him or herself.

Aaron

Wow, that's amazing. 

Daniel

It's an exciting project. It's in works still. We're not selling them, but we've solved most of the hard problems on that. Now, another really cool project we're working on is around hydroponics. There are a lot of benefits to soil-less growing. One of the biggest is the water conservation. So traditional in-soil agriculture uses about 10 times the water that a hydroponic system does and obviously access to fresh water is an ongoing challenge, particularly here in California. However, the problem with hydroponics is it can be incredibly expensive to set up. It can be very cost effective once set up, and it can produce high quality organic food at a relatively low cost because you don't have a lot of the problems of soil farming in terms of fungus and pests and and heavy water usage in those type of things. So our project is a USDA funded grant around how do we make the set up of a hydroponic system much more cost effective with much lower upfront costs. So the idea here is, can we use technology to automate hydroponic systems to reduce a lot of the upfront costs in terms of all the infrastructure that's needed. You need a big conveyor system and a lot of built-in infrastructure for the way hydroponics is done today. Our approach is to use essentially a pallet based system so that you can start with an empty lot, warehouse, or empty field and essentially have a hydroponic system up and running in a matter of days or weeks rather than months to years.

Aaron

Wow, that's amazing. And it sounds like, from what I know of hydroponics and correct me if I'm wrong, but it's a way to actually bring local produce even closer to cities and other densely populated areas it is not. 

Daniel

Yeah, that's right, there are some misconceptions around hydroponics that I think would be good for me to address. Over the past decade, we've seen a number of times when people get this idea of growing crops indoors with artificial lighting. We can use LED lights and LEDs are more efficient and so everything would be great. That idea has pitfalls, let me just caution people. The reason for that is even with LEDs, the cost of producing the electricity needed to produce sufficient photosynthesis in the plants is cost prohibitive. The only place it actually works to have 100 percent artificial light grown produce is in Japan. And the reason it works in Japan is because the cost of produce there is already off the charts and the cost of land is --for similar reasons-- is very, very high. So there they have found that it is economically feasible to basically take a warehouse and do what we call vertical farming, where they just have racks and racks of plants each under lights. It takes massive amounts of electricity. That electricity obviously is produced somewhere, which is generally releasing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. So is it a sustainable practice? No, the carbon cost is high. But if you can do hydroponics and take advantage of the sun, the sun is the most economical and ecologically friendly power source we have. So the idea with hydroponics is that you can do it on, ideally, a small scale, much closer to the the point of consumption. And I think people are interested in exploring that particular model a little more. I'd love to have them be beta testers of the system we're putting together.

Aaron

Well, great. I think that we should encourage people to reach out to you. How should they best do that? 

Daniel

They can go to our web page twistedfields.com, there's a place to contact us that would probably be the most effective.

Aaron

Excellent. Would it be safe to assume that you've had a previous life in technology or engineering in some capacity?

Daniel

Yeah, that's true. I grew up in San Jose. I was very fortunate to have access to technology. In high school, I was fortunate enough to be selected as the top computer science student in all of California and got to spend a summer at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab programming the Cray computer there, which at the time was the fastest supercomputer in the world.

Aaron

Wow. 

Daniel

And from there, I went on to MIT and have just been focusing on automation and robotics to try and make the world a better place and solve some of the most challenging problems facing humanity.

Aaron

Great. Do you have relationships with your neighbors or in fact, do you have relationships with other farmers that you rely on for operating your business or buying your food products?

Daniel

Yeah, we're building those relationships more and more. It's been fun to come into contact over time with like-minded farmers who realize that we have a responsibility to figure these things out. You know, a bumper sticker I saw a while ago so aptly pointed out: no farmers, no food. If we if we completely lose the idea of a local farm and become completely dependent on large industrial farming, we're going to find ourselves in a pickle as a species. So there are a lot of farmers out here that realize that and are motivated to try and help us solve some of these problems facing humanity. So, yeah, I'd say that a lot of people are friendly and well aligned with that mission. On the other hand, I think sometimes people can be set in their ways and and not realize that there's more than one way to do things. And that's certainly one of the challenges that we've run into, is that oftentimes people will just say, no, this is the way you do it. This is the way it's always been done, and this is the right way to do it. And you know that can be a real impediment to progress. We have to be willing to make mistakes if we're going to learn. I like to tell peopled that enlightened trial and error will always produce the best results. But if you're afraid to make a mistake, then we never have that serendipity of discovering an elegant solution that no one's ever going to come up with just out of thin air.

Aaron

Yeah, well, it sounds like quite possibly this country and many other countries may have made the mistake of over-globalizing our food chain, as much as globalization has improved the human condition, like you talk about with the contributions of technology. So many things that we buy, especially technology, like a Boeing airplane is actually manufactured in 30 or 40 countries by thousands of companies from all over the world. Can you talk about how maybe we need to rethink globalization through the lens of local buying and selling?

Daniel

We will always, as a species, go through cycles of learning. And I'm a believer that technology will help us to be better, and one of the ways that will happen is because technology has democratized so many things. So the idea that we can use technology to effectively do things now that used to take a factory to do in the past is really encouraging. The thing about technology is technology gets focused on the things that we value. And what we value is, I think, the thing we need to examine most. I think, unfortunately, we tend to value convenience, entertainment, and comfort oftentimes a lot more than some other things that will perhaps provide more value in the long term. 


Aaron

Like food. 

Daniel

Exactly. Like food. Right. And we did not understand the cost of of junk food on our society just a couple of short decades ago. We just didn't understand the massive cost of bad food. But it is overwhelming our health care system. So I think that that's a problem that we can solve. And I think technology empowering the small local farmer, technology empowering the consumer by helping connect them with the small local farmer in new ways is something that ultimately will solve these problems. You know, I think we will continue to see a number of crops produced on mega scale like wheat and those type of things. Probably not a lot of real incentive for anyone to grow those things locally. But there's a wide range of other crops that technology can allow us to grow locally. I believe that in the future, you know, 20 plus years from now, you will see the majority of food grown locally through a number of approaches using technology like controlled environment agriculture. And you'll start to see a significant positive impact on the health and well-being of our society as a whole.

Aaron

Well, I hope you're right. You know, access to healthy organic food should be a human right. And if technology can lower the cost of it to make those local products available for more people, I think it's going to benefit this country, and everybody in the world in the long run. Well, Daniel, thank you so much for joining me. This has been really interesting. Where should our listeners go to find out more about Twisted Fields? 

Daniel

There is a Twisted Fields Instagram account (@twistedfields). And you probably could have guessed that we are anxious and open to collaborating with anybody that's interested in helping to solve these problems. If you'd like to sign up for our Farm Share program, we would encourage you to do that. And that will help not only support the farm and its research, but you'll benefit from healthier, more enjoyable food as well.

Aaron

Well, great. Thanks for sharing that, Daniel. I really appreciate your time. This has been really interesting. I love the angle that you're coming from. And thank you for the lesson on the on the on the impact of technology on civilization.

Daniel

Happy to talk more anytime. 

Aaron

This is 89.3 FM KDPO  and this is local revolution. I'm Aaron Murphy and thanks for joining us. I look forward to seeing you next time on Local Revolution.

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