Hugo Lopes, Lead Data Scientist on Farming and Brewing Cider

I have spent a lot of time figuring out why I have this genuine interest about farming. My first memory goes back to when I was 13-14 years old, when I completed a psychometric test. After answering all the questions, the results came back with something like: you should pick a job related to engineering AND it should be something in connection with Nature (something outside). Well, that was a difficult one to digest and put into practice, so I moved along to Aerospace Engineering 3-4 years later, without thinking about it too much.

I really enjoyed Astrodynamics, and Aerospace Engineering was a really broad course from where I could move anywhere I liked. However, that feeling that I needed to “connect” with the Earth stayed alive, and I knew that I needed to fulfil that need.

Hi, my name is Hugo Lopes, I’m 29 years old, and I’m currently Lead Data Scientist at James, where we aim to create the first Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Credit Risk. Besides that, I am also a Data Science teacher for two institutions, one of which is non-profit.

I have always lived around Lisbon, Portugal, but it was not until I started working that I made the move to cross the river to live in the city centre. It is true that I now have to spend double the time to get to the beach, but I can now easily move around in Lisbon, and my neighbourhood is quite lovely.

I am formerly an Aerospace Engineer with MSc degree from both Technical University of Lisbon (Portugal) and Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands). I worked for about 4.5 years on my formation field, in European Space Agency projects related to Astrodynamics, Signal Processing and Simulation. I had a lot of fun and learned how software is prepared to go into space. My biggest achievement during that time was to create software to be placed in a real satellite, which is able to estimate the exact location of other Earth-orbiting satellites.

However, I always had in the back of my mind that AI would be one of the most challenging and interesting topics to pursue. Back then, I could not find many online courses (not to talk about in-person ones…) on Data Science, so I started learning on my own. I started by getting experienced in Python programming language and quickly moved into machine learning algorithms. I have done several online courses now – which are getting better everyday. When I was somewhat confident about my technical skills I applied to James (formerly known as CrowdProcess), and I got accepted. It was the greatest shifting moment in my whole career.

About five years ago, I was able to rent a home with two very exceptional balconies. One day in Spring, during a local store visit, I noticed many plant vases and other gardening tools, and I decided right away to buy some, no questions asked. Then, I went to a street market to buy some vegetable seedlings, including cherry tomatoes and peppers, and some organic earth. My wife also got really excited about it.

When I arrived home I put everything together and during that first summer, I already got a lot of cherry tomatoes to put in salads. But I knew I could do even better. So, the following year I bought a book on home farming and kept on learning how to improve my skills.

The biggest contribution I get from growing my own tomatoes and other vegetables is to balance out my patience and relaxation. We can’t always get what we want the fastest possible way and with the highest possible quality. However, in the end, we should praise our effort and enjoy every little thing we get from our work.

Also, farming helps me on managing expectations that we can’t control everything. This applies from the economy to the weather. Things are not fully dependent on us. Finally, another thing I get from farming is some amount of physical activity. We have a significant amount of psychological stress in our lives and farming counterbalances it. I work on very complex and difficult problems everyday, and sometimes I feel I need to get back to the basics: touch the earth, get dirty. It helps me a lot with modesty.

After filling up both balconies with plants (cherry tomatoes, strawberries, sweet pepper, etc.), I knew I needed more space so I decided to start farming on my grandparents’ house where I could expand my crops.

And now, with plenty of more space! Tomatoes are the clear winners: the level of production is usually very high, and they have a lot of applications in cuisine. Then, I also started planting other vegetables. For instance, if you have space, pumpkins are great because they last all winter and you can make great soups with it. But in the end I usually have onions, courgettes, cucumbers, and others. I even planted physalis and they did great! They taste great and can be used to impress some friends! Finally, I have a special attraction to chilli pepper, but I am still trying to master how to produce them because some of the species are very fragile.

It has become common to have everybody in my office to ask about my tomatoes. But I don’t sell them. They are more than enough to offer to my family and some friends.

Although I have never participated in any tomato growing competition, last year I got the biggest tomato ever (cultivar Rose) that was 1036 grams – more than enough for a big family dinner. There is a peak in production around August when I just can’t find more applications to all the tomatoes I get, so I start creating sauces and freezing some.

Making homemade cider is another side project I have. A friend of mine knows a person who has some apples trees. They are organic and have a high sugar content, which results in a higher than average alcoholic cider. Then, I ask for some help from friends – they are one of the interested parties in this – we gather around some equipment we bought together, and start the process.

It usually takes around one full day to extract the juice from all of the apples (usually we can get about 16L of juice). Following that, the yeast is added, and it rests for about 2 to 3 months in an isolated environment. Finally, the fermented (and clear) cider is bottled, and some bottles are opened during the following months, usually in special moments or when we just want to taste our effort.

It is amazing how Internet makes it possible for any person to produce homemade cider – and with a great taste (not kidding!). You can do it as well.

The most important part of maintaining a good organic garden is variety – creating a balanced environment. Plants help each other (although some shouldn’t be planted too close together) to avoid the spread of diseases and small (and very hungry) living beings.

I have also become more interested in what I eat and where the food comes from. Consequently, I’m planning to start some winter crops (you can imagine it as a harder level in a game). Furthermore, as an engineer I have an ultimate goal of monitoring my farm from Lisbon – but only time will tell if I can do it.

Everybody can start growing some vegetables or even some herbs at home. Start by buying some basilicum plant and keep it close to a window with some sunlight. Start using it when you cook. If you want to move to vegetables, and you live in an apartment without a balcony, check your neighbourhood for some empty spaces. In Lisbon we have some shared farms that we can apply for. It is fun and you can even share some insights and make friends with the people around.

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