Solar powered rain catchment for urban farm irrigation

Keep Growing Detroit installing rainwater catchment at theJOYproject, an urban farm in Detroit

Our NSF grant examines how computing might help weave together local elements of an circular economy: low-income communities using digital technologies to create their own products in worker-owned enterprise, offering services supported by online platforms they own and control, and cycling value back to the community, rather than see it extracted by large corporations.

But community organizations can’t just be recipients, they need to be the co-designers and knoweldge experts too.

We approached theJOYproject, a Detroit urban farm that describes itself as “A Living Archive of African Atlantic Agriculture and Foodways”, and asked them about the role digital technologies might play. They pointed out that their first priority was getting solar power to run irrigation from their rain catchment system. The company they were working with for photovoltaics, Family First Solar (FFS), is a worker-owned collective that offers free educational support to the community. And they were also working with Keep Growing Detroit (KGD), an urban farming organization whose returns of value to the community include free rainwater catchment systems. So it was not only a great technological design–plenty of opportunity for adding in digital controls, moisture sensors and other computing once you have the power and water infrastructure–but also exactly the kind of economic “ecosystem” we wanted to support, where mutual aid, local supply chains and community value returns could co-evolve.

We were expecting to wait an entire growing season before we could hear whether adding electricity was beneficial, but the response came the week after installation: a power blackout across Detroit turned the solar installation into a gathering spot where neighbors spent the night charging phones and laptops, sharing food and creating entertainment. With theJOYproject’s example as the model, we approached the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan to fund a combination of solar photovoltaics and rainwater harvesting in 5 farms across Detroit.

To summarize the advantages:

  1. Rain harvesting alone does not provide sufficient water pressure for many irrigation purposes. Solar photovoltaics can power pumps that save labor hours, and expands the surface area available for planting. Moisture sensors and digital timers can ensure that water is only delivered when needed.
  2. Rain harvesting is an increasingly important strategy for urban design, because of growing climate instability causing both flooding and droughts.
  3. When not used for pumps, solar electricity can reduce power bills and provide emergency electricity, as noted by theJOYproject.
  4. Hiring worker-owned enterprises to do the work builds local capacity, and FFS and KGD are particularly good at generating returns to the local community.
  5. Connecting together local farms, local solar installations, and local rain harvesting provides a model for how community-based economic networks can be developed, and offers an infrastructure in which computing can provide additional enhancements.