Volunteers, students come together to bring FarmBot technology to Solana Ranch

On Sept. 30, the sixth annual Green Apple Day of Service brought members of the community together to help enhance the STREAM (science, technology, research, engineering, arts and math) program at Solana Ranch Elementary School.

For Green Apple Day, the San Diego chapter of the US Green Building Council and Balfour Beatty Construction partnered with the Solana Beach School District to oversee the construction of a FarmBot at the school, a do-it-yourself precision farming solution with the potential to change the future of farming.

“It was amazing,” said STREAM teacher Roderick Gayta of the four-hour Saturday workday attended by 100 volunteers from Balfour Beatty and about 50 Solana Ranch students and family members. “The amount of people that we had out here was great, kids were using tools and helping out, it was just a tremendous event. It was really, really cool.”

Green Apple Day of Service is an initiative from the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council that provides an opportunity for students, teachers, companies and more to transform all schools into healthy, safe, cost-efficient and productive learning environments.

For the event, Balfour Beatty returned to the campus it built in 2014 to lead the engaging, hands-on construction project. Over the summer, Solana Ranch Principal Jerry Jones connected with Balfour Beatty’s sustainability manager Kyle Frandsen about what a good project would be for the school, resulting in Balfour Beatty’s offer to donate the FarmBot and volunteer time.

“We were thrilled with our volunteer turnout, as well as the support of our partners and subcontractors who helped us raise $27,000 to help pay for the project and benefit the San Diego Green Building Council,” said Frandsen. “Not only did we enjoy a great day connecting with students, parents and the community in general, there is great satisfaction knowing that the FarmBot and garden will be teaching the next generation Solana Ranch Elementary School STREAM students to be sustainability leaders.”

The FarmBot, the brainchild of an engineering student at Cal Poly, uses precision agriculture to reduce the environmental impacts of farming by reducing water use, energy, transportation and time required to grow crops. The robot can be programmed to perform almost all processes prior to harvesting, including sowing, weed control and watering. A solar panel and battery provides the electricity.

On Sept. 30, kids and volunteers worked together to build a new fence around the garden area (all of the fencing was donated by Western Rim Construction) and took time preparing the garden’s eight planter boxes. Only one was prepared to use the FarmBot — the kids and volunteers worked together to install the solar panel that will power the FarmBot, drilled and installed the FarmBot tracks and helped construct the robot itself.

Inside the STREAM lab, conveniently located right next to the garden, kids began working right away on coding the FarmBot. Once students design the layout for the garden, they will be able to program when and where the robot waters, plants and even weeds. Students will also program the robot to switch different tool attachments, such as the seed injector, the watering tool, weed suppressor and a soil sensor.

“It moves up and down, side to side,” Gayta said. “The kids will plot the coordinates so the FarmBot knows where to go, then program it to trade attachments and plan the regimen for the whole day.”

The FarmBot will show students how technology can help in creating organic and healthy produce for everybody, Gatya said, noting that they will also be able to compare results to other beds in the garden that will be tended using traditional, manual methods, “It will be a nice study of the pros and cons in technology,” he said.