An organic farming company moves up the Florida food chain
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.
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.