(Fish) Farm-to-Table Produce With PagerDuty

by Evelyn Chea February 27, 2020 | 5 min read

Most of us are familiar with the traditional farms that have existed since humans learned to sow and harvest crops—these farms have provided us with food for centuries. And for a long time, due to the lack of refrigeration and other technology, humans lived near their food sources. But industrialization has also led to centralization of farming systems, with farms getting larger and further from consumers and with distributors depending on preservatives or refrigeration to extend shelf life.

For example, getting a salad, where consumers expect freshness, depends on a staggering level of geographic consolidation—95% of all leafy greens in the US are grown in California and Arizona (and almost all of that in just two counties!). Not only does this mean your salad spends most of its shelf life on a truck, but it also accounts for why issues like E. coli outbreaks cause frequent and widespread recalls.

Upward Farms (formerly Edenworks), based in Brooklyn, New York, is changing all that by providing fresh produce grown locally in a sustainable way via aquaponics—a mix of aquaculture and hydroponics. This means that in addition to growing flavor- and nutrient-powerhouses baby greens and microgreens, the company also grows fish. And it’s the manure from these fish that provide the nutrients to the growing plants.

Founded in 2013 by CEO Jason Green, Construction Manager & Systems Engineer Matt La Rosa, and CTO Ben Silverman, Upward Farms grows a variety of baby greens and microgreens in climate-controlled vertical farms (think tall industrial racking systems with layers of plants growing under LED light), and sells washed and ready-to-eat packaged salads to local stores, including Whole Foods Market. Their products use 95% less water than traditional farming, are pesticide free, and are on shelves the day after harvest—compared to the week that field-grown products spend on a truck—doubling the shelf life.

From Waste to Water to Food

Indoor farms aren’t really anything new—greenhouse growing has been a major industry in Holland for 100 years. What is new are vertical farms, where layer upon layer of plants are stacked into towers. These high-density indoor farms are the result of paradigm shifts in LED lighting, sensors and IoT, and automation.

For instance, LED fixtures have historically been very expensive, and cheaper halogen or metal halide fixtures used in other growing systems generate too much heat to be used in high-density vertical farms—they would cook the plants. However, as technology improved and the price of LED bulbs dropped—according to Green, the hard costs of an LED has decreased about 90% over the past 5 years, while operating costs have similarly decreased through higher efficiencies—vertical farming is now a viable solution for areas like the U.S. Northeast, which has massive populations but a climate that cannot support year-round growing like the U.S. West Coast or Mexico.

Upward Farms sustainably farms fish, with no hormones or antibiotics. Water from the fish tanks is pumped through a bioreactor, where naturally occurring bacteria transform the fish waste—manure—into fertilizer. The Upward Farms team has custom-built industrial racks containing long pond-like shelves, layered into tall towers, and the fertilizer-rich water is pumped into those shelves. Floating on top of each shelf are trays filled with seeds for a variety of leafy greens, which are fully grown after 7–18 days under LED bulbs, and are then harvested, washed, and packaged to be put on store shelves the next day.

A Delicate Balance

Recreating an entire ecosystem indoors with equipment in close quarters is exactly as tough as it sounds. The Upward Farms team needs to constantly monitor a variety of metrics, from “vital signs” like dissolved oxygen in the fish tanks, to ambient climate conditions that determine plant quality and yield.

With all that stuff to monitor, the team uses the PagerDuty Events API to connect with a variety of equipment that capture environmental conditionals and water chemistry in real time so they can optimize their operations. For example, if a pump fails or an aeration pipe is clogged, an oxygen deficit in the fish tanks could lead to a mortality event in which hundreds of fish die within hours. Plants are less sensitive, but if the temperature in the grow stacks rises above the ideal range, it could impact the quality and yield. In these cases and others, it’s imperative that someone is alerted immediately to resolve the issue. Upward Farms uses PagerDuty to route incidents to the appropriate teams for response. Environmental threshold alarms are directed to the farming and aquaculture teams while equipment-related alarms are directed to the I.T. team.

In the end, it’s grocers and their consumers who benefit, through a new level of freshness, quality, and safety in the most delicate perishables of leafy greens and fish.

Interested in learning more? Michael Karlesky, Director of Software & Electronics at Upward Farms, provides more details on Upward Farms uses PagerDuty’s Events API in the Upward Farms Implementation Guide.