COASTAL COM­MERCE

An or­ganic farm­ing com­pany moves up the Florida food chain

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY ME­LANIE PA­GAN

Sprout­ing to Life

En­ter­ing the Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics cen­ter is like step­ping into the fu­ture of farm­ing. The com­bi­na­tion of ver­ti­cal veg­etable har­vest­ing, li­censed seed dis­tribut­ing and a fully cir­cu­lat­ing aquapon­ics sys­tem makes the com­pany the only one of its kind in Fort My­ers, and one of the hand­ful in the United States that com­bine all of these prac­tices. In­no­va­tive pro­ce­dures aside, Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics in­vestor Mary Jo Walker says the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s meth­ods are based on old prac­tices.

“This is some­thing that has been go­ing on for thou­sands of years,” says Walker. “It’s just mak­ing you aware of life cy­cles.” The fourth- gen­er­a­tion Florid­ian can re­call a time when or­ganic farm­ing was a ma­jor mar­ket in Fort My­ers, one that she was very fa­mil­iar with grow­ing up. She would help her fa­ther sell fresh straw­ber­ries at u- pick stands on the side of U. S. High­way 41 when the road was dusty and un­der­de­vel­oped. The farmer’s daugh­ter be­lieves ev­ery­thing in na­ture thrives on bal­ance, and by uti­liz­ing re­cy­cled waste from farmed fish to fer­til­ize plants, that is the ex­act phi­los­o­phy the Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics team fol­lows.

Lo­cated off Metro Park­way in the in­dus­trial district of Fort My­ers, an old bev­er­age ware­house— now the Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics head­quar­ters— blends in with other build­ings, but the real magic lies in­side. Ev­ery inch of the 5,000- square­foot space is ded­i­cated to eco­nom­i­cal, hu­mane and sus­tain­able prac­tices that al­low Florida tilapia, let­tuce, mi­cro­greens and wheat­grass to grow with­out the use of pes­ti­cides or syn­thetic fer­til­iz­ers. Through con­stant plan­ning and ed­u­ca­tion, the team is able to use 85 per­cent less wa­ter and still achieve plant den­si­ties that are sig­nif­i­cantly greater than tra­di­tional farm­ing meth­ods.

Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics was de­vel­oped last year and serves as the all- in­clu­sive or­ga­ni­za­tion for par­ent com­pany Selovita, which is re­spon­si­ble for re­search and de­vel­op­ment, and non­profit sis­ter com­pany iSeed USA, which pro­vides tan­gi­ble nu­tri­tional so­lu­tions for third world coun­tries through the use of por­ta­ble aqua­cul­ture sys­tems called “Aquapon­ics in a Box.” Seed, aquaponic, hor­ti­cul­ture and mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy spe­cial­ists are able to come to­gether un­der one roof and ex­tend ideas for a more ef­fi­cient fu­ture,

WE ARE JUST SCRATCH­ING THE SUR­FACE OF WHAT WE CAN DO. WHETHER WE CAN TRACE A SEED WITH HIGHER NU­TRI­TIONAL VALUE, FIND A BET­TER FOOD SOURCE FOR TILAPIA OR FIND BET­TER WAYS TO WORK WITH WA­TER, THERE’S SO MUCH MORE

OUT THERE TO DIS­COVER.”

from im­prov­ing meal plans in pub­lic schools to feed­ing people in other coun­tries.

Ar­eas in and around the ware­house in­clude an ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter, a mi­cro­green room, seed house and ar­eas for let­tuce and fish tanks. Cur­rently, Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics grows seven sin­gle- va­ri­etal let­tuces, a feat that co­founder and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Gary Win­row says wouldn’t be pos­si­ble with­out pay­ing at­ten­tion to de­tails from the ini­tial plant­ing stage. “Who­ever con­trols the seed wins, and we con­trol our own seed,” he says.

Af­ter the high­est- qual­ity seeds are lo­cated, they are cared for in a se­ries of stages, re­quir­ing as much at­ten­tion

— GARY WIN­ROW OF FLORIDA UR­BAN OR­GAN­ICS

as would a new­born— which is likely how mem­bers of the or­ganic farm view them. Win­row says car­ing for the seeds is a seven- days- a- week job.

Ad­vanced stages of grow­ing take just as much com­mit­ment. In the har­vest cen­ter, part- time work­ers pack­age wheat­grass by hand, an­a­lyz­ing each shoot and weed­ing out frail pieces. Aquapon­ics di­rec­tor Jorge Pang says the process could cer­tainly be done faster by ma­chine, but the com­pany has higher stan­dards for its prod­ucts. “Even though we are los­ing ma­te­rial by not pack­ing it all, we don’t want to do that,” Pang says. “We want to give out the best pos­si­ble qual­ity.” Much like the wheat­grass, mi­cro­green shoots and let­tuces are ex­cep­tion­ally po­tent and fresh enough to be plucked and en­joyed on the spot. Area chefs have al­ready started buy­ing trays of their own.

The mi­cro­green room holds trays full of var­i­ous nu­tri­ents that sit un­der op­ti­mum light­ing, and out­side, rows con­sist­ing of 28 pots of let­tuce are fit­ted into 8- inch squares, al­low­ing abun­dant space that Win­row says wouldn’t be fea­si­ble in tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture.

Though the team at Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics en­sures each area of pro­duc­tion is run­ning ef­fec­tively, the nutrient stream is the nu­cleus of the en­tire oper­a­tion.

THIS IS SOME­THING THAT HAS BEEN GO­ING ON FOR THOU­SANDS OF YEARS. IT’S JUST MAK­ING YOU AWARE OF LIFE CY­CLES.”

— MARY JO WALKER, IN­VESTOR IN FLORIDA UR­BAN OR­GAN­ICS

A twelve- tank sys­tem hosts 3,500 Florida tilapia in 6,000 gal­lons of wa­ter. Fish waste is fil­tered and used as fer­til­izer for all of the crops on premises.

The or­gan­i­cally fed fish are con­sid­ered sushi grade, and when they are fully grown they are har­vested and sold. The first full batch is ex­pected to ship in April, but a few fish have al­ready been do­nated. Thirty- five fish were given to Can­ter­bury School last year so it could de­velop its own aquapon­ics cen­ter. “We’ve got to give out this in­for­ma­tion to kids be­cause they just get it,” says Win­row. “Hope­fully, they will teach their par­ents.”

The Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics team doesn’t be­lieve chil­dren are the only ones able to learn what they call life- chang­ing lessons in nu­tri­tion. In ad­di­tion to help­ing third world coun­tries with “Aquapon­ics in a Box,” the break­down sys­tem can also help the home­less. “We can go down­town to some of the ar­eas and give people a pur­pose,” says Walker. “In­stead of just giv­ing them a handout, let them learn some­thing and work to­ward some­thing.

“We can help rebuild self- es­teem in some people,” she continues. “This helps not just by putting dol­lars out, but by putting food out.”

The year- old com­pany is al­ready patent­pend­ing and mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant head­way, but team mem­bers don’t in­tend to rest on their lau­rels. Like the plants they har­vest, they strive to keep grow­ing. “We are just scratch­ing the sur­face of what we can do,” says Win­row. “Whether we can trace a seed with higher nu­tri­tional value, find a bet­ter food source for tilapia or find bet­ter ways to work with wa­ter, there’s so much more out there to dis­cover.”

Learn more about Florida Ur­ban Or­gan­ics at flori­dau­r­banor­gan­ics.com.

22

Chero­kee let­tuce in its be­gin­ning stage at Florida U rban Or­gan­ics

Work­ers hand- se­lect and pack­age wheat­grass for sale.

Clock­wise from bot­tom left: Wheat­grass grow­ing in the mi­cro­green room; mizuna mus­tard; Florida tilapia are har vested at birth

and fed or­gan­i­cally un­til fully grown; Chero­kee let­tuce.

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