Assessing the Feasibility of Microgrid Supported Open Hydroponics (MSOHCC) for a Resilient Fresh Food Supply; How Agriculture Policies Effect the Livelihood and Mental Health of Farmers

Mehta, Sahil, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Louis, Garrick, EN- Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Rural farmers across the globe face significant industry challenges revolving around climate change and the inefficient economics in the agriculture sector. The purpose of the technical work is to address some of the environmental challenges that are experienced by rural farmers in Small Island Developing States, or SIDS. The project team focused on designing a prototype microgrid supported open hydroponic crop cultivation (MSOHCC) unit where lettuce crops will be grown. The STS research sheds light on the alarmingly high suicide rates among the farmer population and examines how American agricultural policy plays a large role in dictating the livelihood of farmers. Both of these projects address the ongoing struggles that are met by rural farmers on a regular basis, and provide potential solutions to support the group’s wellbeing.
Farmers on SIDS must cope with exacerbating environmental disasters, such as hurricanes and typhoons, which can compromise local food security. Some of the environmental challenges experienced on SIDS includes decreasing amounts of arable land, decreasing amounts of available freshwater resources, and an increasing threat of severe storms destroying crop harvests and electricity grids. A solar-powered MSOHCC unit has been developed and will eventually be deployed in the Bahamas as part of their National Emergency Food Plan.
The project team faced significant setbacks in the development and testing of the MSOHCC unit primarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic hindered our ability to meet in person, and this paired with the growing conditions experienced in winter-time in Charlottesville, VA did not allow us to begin crop cultivation until well into the Spring semester. In the time since, the project team has successfully built a prototype MSOHCC unit that delivered a promising lettuce yield. Future capstone teams will collect data on the yields and develop a plan to ship the unit to the Bahamas.
The STS research also analyzed farmer struggles but looked into mental health as a focal point. Research shows that the mental health state of farmers is statistically correlated with farmer income. There are several factors that can variate this year to year income, but agricultural policy and foreign relations are a large deciding factor. The Farm Bill has historically grappled with promoting foreign trade while supporting domestic farmers through price supports, subsidies, and crop insurance policies. These policies have ultimately caused long-lasting economic struggles among individual rural farmers that have also deteriorated the mental health of this group.
The root causes and potential solutions are addressed through the lens of conflict theory. Historical evidence suggests that there are less and less farmers entering the industry each year and more farmers migrating out of the profession. This had led to a sense of relative deprivation of basic resources in these rural communities. Conflict theory, as described by Lewis Coser, suggests that empowerment from this sense of deprivation is what can cause social change. As a result, the research paper proposes the creation of an agency that addresses all of the mental health short comings in rural communities. Additionally, funding to reinvest in the infrastructure of these rural communities can re-inspire confidence in these communities, which is made up of several farm families.
The uncertainty revolving around climate change and foreign policy has taken a severe toll on farmer livelihood. Both of these projects address potential solutions to challenges taken by farmers on a large scale.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
hydroponics, mental health and suicide, policy, climate change, conflict theory, farmers

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering
Technical Advisor: Garrick Louis
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Hannah Hiscott, Harrison Mazanec, Henry Quach

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