2013-11-21 / Business News

A farm for the future

BY EVAN WILLIAMS


Lettuce grown horizontally helps increase yields by maximizing the use of space. 
VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY Lettuce grown horizontally helps increase yields by maximizing the use of space. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY AN AMBITIOUS, NEW FORT MYERS FARM aquaponic, organic, urban, sustainable, scalable, patent-pending and out to make significant headway toward saving the world — plans to cater to some of the world’s poorest and most affluent citizens at the same time.

Located in an industrial area off Metro Parkway, it combines tilapia fish farming and hydroponic vegetable production in a circulating system that has wideranging applications. Those include providing impoverished communities with “plug-and-play, turnkey” versions of the Fort Myers farm as an economic engine and food source; and supplying local gourmet markets with specialty lettuces.

The farm also has broader implications for movements such as reducing carbon emissions or to improve health, suggested Gary Winrow, one of the farm’s four founders.


Wheatgrass and microgreens grow on a rack at Florida Urban Organics. 
COURTESY PHOTOS Wheatgrass and microgreens grow on a rack at Florida Urban Organics. COURTESY PHOTOS “We believe that the movement away from industrialized farming to more of a lower demand for resources and a smaller footprint to get a higher yield of crop (style of farming) is the future,” said Mr. Winrow, the managing director of Selovita, the parent company of Florida Urban Organics and its not-for-profit sister company, iSeedUSA. The whole operation is based at the Fort Myers farm and administrative offices, in an old, 5,000-square-foot beverage warehouse and on surrounding land.

For-profit Selovita focuses on research and development, while Florida Urban Organics is the organization’s brand name. Not-for-profit iSeedUSA develops self-sustaining tilapia and vegetable production systems for poor communities, such as an orphanage in Haiti, or people wiped out by the recent typhoon in the Philippines. The systems are called Aquaponics in a Box.

Employees at the Fort Myers farm include a microbiologist, chemical engineer and horticulturalist. They are finetuning the farm’s system based on aquaponics, a combination of aquaculture (raising seafood) and hydroponics (plants grown with little or no soil).

While Selovita was founded four years ago, the farm itself began early this year. Now, hundreds of pounds of lettuce varietals are harvested there each week, as well as wheatgrass and greens such as micro-mint and sweet yellow corn shoots, all on less than an acre of land, said Whitney Fuller, Selovita’s marketing director. The company plans to lease another 8.5 acres of adjoining land to complete its Fort Myers campus, which will be used for food production as well as training and development purposes for iSeedUSA’s mission.

In one part of the warehouse, long rows of nutrient-rich microgreens sit in trays in a cavernous darkened room with optimal lighting. Outside, lettuces in pots under a greenhouse-style canopy are stacked one on top of the other to use space efficiently.

The farm’s first fish harvest, from a series of 6,000-gallon tanks, each holding 3,500 tilapia sustained by organic feed, is slated for March 2014. A portion of water from the tanks is used to fertilize the farm’s crop; the rest is either discarded or made into an organic liquid fertilizer that itself has broad retail possibilities, from sports turf to home gardens. Since the process is patent-pending, Ms. Fuller declined to go into great detail about how it works.

Already, Florida Urban Organics products are being carried at Ada’s Natural Market in Fort Myers, she said. Its wheatgrass will be used at the juice bar, for instance. Lettuces and microgreens are being marketed to gourmet restaurants and stores such as Whole Foods in Naples.

“I’m exited to see what the consumer reaction is going to be to this different variety of produce,” Ms. Fuller said. “I think chefs will get very excited about this. I hope they will. I would if I were a chef.”

iSeedUSA

One of iSeedUSA’s smaller systems is designed to produce enough fish and vegetables for a family of five to both feed themselves and produce an income. It can be scaled up or down; a larger system could feed and provide income for a village of 100 people.

A smaller system costs about $5,000 (although that could change as it continues to be developed) and includes all the hardware such as a greenhouse structure and pipes, as well as training materials and assistance, seeds and fish.

That price point is out of the range of many communities that iSeedUSA seeks to help. That’s why part of Beverly E. Niles job as iSeed’s outreach coordinator is to connect people who could benefit from it with groups or individuals who have the money to pay for the systems.

Ms. Niles explained the Fort Myers farm is also looking for volunteers of ages ranging from high school and college students to the retirement community, for work in both the for-profit and nonprofit sides of the farm. For instance, volunteers might run tours of the Fort Myers facility once it’s fully operational, complete community service hours for a school project, or even go overseas to help provide training for aquaponics systems.

The farm is also welcoming interns, who could be involved in fields as diverse as accounting, marketing, social media, microbiology, engineering and horticulture.

“There are so many possibilities because we have such a broad spectrum of disciplines,” Ms. Niles said.

Aquaculture

Aquaponics and other aquaculture systems that integrate agriculture, aren’t ideas exclusive to Selovita, of course. The Royal Tila farm advertises itself as “a state-of-the-art aquaponic farm in Punta Gorda,” one of at least a handful of blended farms throughout the United States that have popped up in recent years as the idea gained popularity.

“There is a lot of interest in new forms of aquaculture that integrate multiple species,” Ken Peterson, communications director for Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, wrote in an e-mail. “At the heart of the issue, it’s a way to turn what otherwise would be waste products — and potential sources of pollution — into productive uses.”

For decades, the sprawling North Fort Myers garden and farm ECHO has developed practical farming techniques that can be used by impoverished people in different climates throughout the world. About three months ago they began using a demonstration-size aquaponic system with a large fish tank and roughly 100-square feet of vegetable growing space, said Craig Bielema, ECHO’s appropriate technology specialist.

“In general, it uses much less water than conventional agriculture because theoretically there’s none leaching through the soil,” he said. “It’s especially impactful for very dry regions, open countries, and typically those are the ones that have the biggest problems with agriculture anyway.”

He adds that the method is far from magic: “A lot of things you read or see or hear make it sound like a food vending machine where you put in some fish pellets and out pops all this wonderful lettuce,” he said. “(But) there’s a large amount of work that goes into it. There are different types of chores to do but it’s still work to manage your crops and animals.”

Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota is designing an aquaculture-agriculture project connected to freshwater sturgeon ponds, Mr. Peterson noted; “And a well-known chef in Kentucky is raising tilapia and salad vegetables for her restaurant at an aquaculture farm in Lexington.”

But the Fort Myers farm off Metro represents “the most advanced aquaponics system out there,” Ms. Fuller said.

In one of the Selovita’s smaller applications, it will provide Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm in North Fort Myers with spent wheatgrass soil to provide fodder for Rosy’s pigs, chickens and cattle, said owner Rose O’Dell King.

“It’s been pretty exciting taking what is a waste product for them and turning it into food for our animals here on the farm,” she said, adding that it could be composted as well. “I just fell in love with what they’re doing there. It’s high-tech and low-tech all at one time.”

Less directly, urban farming that aims to produce food in relatively tight spaces dovetails with New Urbanism, a design movement with roots in Florida, which aims to rein in suburbia by encouraging dense, mixed-use developments.

“New Urbanism is simpatico with the local food movement for sure,” said Tim Halbur, communications director at Congress for the New Urbanism, an advocacy group. “The caveat there is that densification makes more sense, though. If you can do it on a smaller scale so that it melds with the urban fabric I think that’s great.” ¦

For more information on volunteer or internship opportunities at Selovita and iSeedUSA, contact outreach coordinator Beverly E. Niles at 245-8659 or e-mail volunteers@selovita.us or Volunteers@iseedusa.org.

Websites (still under development):

>> www.selovita.us >> www.iseedusa.org >> www.floridaurbanorganics.com

Return to top