Brick Street Farms Takes Hydroponic Vertical Farming to Urban Communities
by TERESA SCHIFFER
With a global population now nearly 8 billion with no signs of slowing any time soon, each passing year it becomes more imperative that we develop the most efficient methods of providing nutritious food for people in a sustainable fashion. Brick Street Farms is a leading innovator when it comes to feeding Floridians, and Shannon O’Malley is committed to doing this in a viable and ecologically friendly manner.
O’Malley is the CEO and co-founder of Brick Street Farms, a St. Petersburg company that created a climate-controlled agriculture and hydroponic farming system that transforms shipping containers into urban farms.
She and her husband, Bradley Doyle, got the inspiration for their urban farms in late 2015 and officially started Brick Street Farms in 2016. Neither came from an agricultural background.
Native Floridian Brad Doyle is a software developer, while O’Malley was an electrical engineer for Duke Energy hailing from Pennsylvania. In her home state, O’Malley was a Master Gardener, but upon moving to Florida, she discovered that her green thumb didn’t transplant so well into the radically different climate and environment.
O’Malley recalls the rocky beginnings of what would ultimately become a very successful venture, “I started Brick Street Farms as a backyard hobby. I started in a raised garden bed, and I was just pretty awful at it.”
She then moved her horticultural efforts indoors, converting the couple’s garage to an automated hydroponic garden. As time went on, O’Malley and Doyle began looking to expand, eyeing warehouses as potential growing sites. When the rent proved too steep for consideration, inspiration struck – shipping containers! These provided a controllable environment, plus they could be relocated. THRIVE containers and Brick Street Farms were born from this realization.
“We bought a few shipping containers, and we bought a derelict junkyard in downtown St. Petersburg. We cleaned out the junkyard and ended up with a flat, gravel lot. We cleaned the property, removed and recycled all of the junk and had a blank slate, dropped our shipping containers, and Brick Street Farms was born,” O’Malley recalls.
She applied the concepts of a reduced carbon footprint that she had seen in action while working on smart grid projects at Duke Energy to the design of the THRIVE containers. O’Malley explains her driving philosophy behind the agricultural endeavor: “It came out of the general concept that I felt that humans could do better. I just felt that we could revolutionize and have a significant impact on the agricultural industry.”
In order to do better, O’Malley and Doyle envisioned their new, portable, hydroponic growing environments as “urban hubs.” Rather than locating their mini-farms on the outskirts of town, as many urban farms tend to do, and then either trucking produce into urban centers or marketing through a traditional grocery store, they wanted Brick Street Farms to be accessible to consumers by situating the hubs right in the middle of all the action.
“The hubs are designed to be very compact so they can be on a standard lot of 5,000 square feet in a downtown area, and each hub will grow the equivalent of 24 acres of traditional farmland,” O’Malley explains.
“Each shipping container is between two to three acres of production volume. We grow 365/24/7, with only one to 2 percent waste.”
That “waste” doesn’t even go to waste. Instead, O’Malley and Doyle or their employees take it home for personal consumption. The urban hubs are able to keep the percentage of waste so low because they utilize a controlled environment that prevents damage from pests or extreme weather conditions, plus they don’t face the transportation challenges of a traditional farm.
Brick Street Farms takes responsibility for their entire supply chain, and they deliver within 60 miles of each hub.
Their vertical farming strategy means that each THRIVE container has six levels of growing, housing anywhere from 4,000 to 12,000 individual plants. The shipping containers also can be stacked vertically upon each other, allowing for very dense production potential within highly populated urban areas, where land is at a premium value.
Response to their urban hubs has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The public has been absolutely wonderful. My husband and I started this just the two of us, and we were entirely self-funded to start,” O’Malley says. “St. Pete and the whole Tampa Bay area really embrace ‘local,’ and we saw a huge opportunity, especially with leafy greens because of how short the greens season is here. We’ve been fully embraced by the hospitality industry. We started there and worked with chefs to put our name on the menu. And really, their customers just started asking, and folks would Google us, and they would just come and knock on the farm door asking to buy lettuce.”
There is currently an urban hub open in downtown St. Petersburg. The hub has a retail market for selling directly to consumers, plus an e-commerce option that customers can use to order products online for pickup. Soon, O’Malley and Doyle will be offering delivery from this location.
Brick Street Farms will be opening an urban hub in Tampa this year, and they are currently raising funds to open five more hubs throughout Central Florida over the next two years. In the meantime, you can find their produce in a number of restaurants and specialty grocery stores throughout Central Florida, including Publix Greenwise in Lakeland.