Small farms on a Mission to grow alternative

Small farms on a Mission to grow alternative

Growers experimenting with soil-less, protected cultures, and new crops

A Winter Haven ministry is growing food for the poor using vertical plant towers. The hydroponic/aeroponic system produces vegetables and fruits faster, without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. “Instead of cultivating the soil, we cultivate the water,” says David Berry, executive pastor of The Mission.

As a sideline to citrus, Anna Coco and her husband, Bruce Templeton, began growing test crops in greenhouses using cocopeat, also known as coir, as a growing medium. They ended up becoming distributors. “We’ve grown many different crops to learn the product,” says Coco, who plans to grow blueberries in the medium in November.

Others are growing or considering olives, blackberries, pomegranates or peaches as secondary— or alternative crops. “There’s quite a bit of [olive] research going on,” says Michael O’Hara Garcia, president of the Florida Olive Council.

While the tree itself usually will grow where citrus grows, that doesn’t mean it will bear. “If they are not able to go dormant, they don’t bloom. If they don’t bloom, there’s no olives,” Garcia says.

Those who use the soil-less approach to growing eliminate soil-borne diseases. Because the planting in protected by a greenhouse or tunnel, the plants are shielded from freezes and outdoor pests as well.

At The Mission, a nondenominational, community-based outreach ministry, Pastor Berry finds his towers cut growing time on lettuce by 25 percent. It uses one-third of the traditional amount of water and one quarter of the nutrients.

The Mission, which serves 250-300 meals a day, is open four days a week. It has 28 towers and is growing a variety of produce including five types of lettuce, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, and tomatoes. A tower holds 20 plants, runs on $6 worth of electricity a year, and requires 10 minutes a week to maintain.

For The Mission, the towers are a godsend. “For the most part you’re exempt from seasonal growing,” Pastor Berry explains. “The only two things we have to grow in cooler weather is spinach and strawberry. Everything else you can grow year round.” It doesn’t require that proverbial green thumb, either. “I’m not a farmer. I’m not a gardener. I literally kill air ferns,” he admits.

Ministry workers call it the Daniel Project, based on the book of the Bible where Daniel and his friends ate vegetables as a test— rather than customary foods they believed were polluted. Daniel and his friends were healthier than the others. “That’s what we desire for our folks to be: Stronger and healthier,” Pastor Berry says.

At Doublethumb Growing Solutions in Lake Wales, Coco finds coir “does a better job of holding nutrients on the root.” She explains, “You can’t really overwater coir fiber, as long as you have the proper mix or blend.”

She finds coir minimizes water use and optimizes fertilizer. “It is a different technique. It is more technical,” says Coco. “You should, under the right management program, get higher yields.” It is made from the outer green husk of the coconut, which normally would be thrown away. When it’s time to replace the coir, it can be used as mulch in the field.

“What I tell people is, it [the plant] is like a baby. There’s no nutrition in that fiber at all,” Coco says. “You have to feed it, versus soil that does have some nutrition.”

Protected agriculture now includes at least 385 acres in Florida, according to a new, 2013 survey by Robert Hochmuth and Dilcia Toro from the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS). That’s up from 92 acres in 2001.

There was a significant increase in the use of high tunnels, which accounted for more than 186 acres. It was almost non-existent in a 2001 survey. Protected structures costs may range from $1 to $8 or $10 a square foot, Hochmuch observes. Soil and soil-less mediums were diverse, like the crops themselves.

Growers have demonstrated a willingness to experiment, with new varieties and crops not being grown commercially in Florida. About 200 acres are planted with olives in Florida, according to Olive Council estimates. Olives are very bitter and resistant to most bugs. Although they have been grown in northern Florida for many years, the challenge is to be able to grow olives farther south, Garcia reports.

Some 50 test olive trees were planted in May on Mosaic Company property at Bowling Green near the Hardee/Polk county line. An additional 500 will be planted in the spring.

There’s also interest in growing blackberries. Because they are highly perishable, it is important to establish marketing relationships to move the fruit quickly, says Mary Beth Henry, a small farms/pesticide licensing extension agent with UF/IFAS in Polk County. U-pick is an option, but growers should be aware many varieties have thorns, and a backup plan should be in place if there aren’t enough u-pick customers.

Unlike blueberries, blackberries do not require a very low ph, or acidic soil. They do require trellising. “There’s definitely potential for growing them here. There’s not the kind of push there has been with blueberries. I would say that’s because of the perishability,” Henry says.

Pomegranates and peaches have been gaining in popularity. Pomegranate growers are being challenged by fungus, but there’s also good news: A processor is coming to southern Georgia, near Alma. The other processor is in California.

Cindy Weinstein and her husband, David, who own Green Sea Farms near Zolfo Springs in Hardee County, now have more than 100 mother trees to produce a wide assortment of pomegranates. Cindy heads the Florida Pomegranate Association (FPA).

One of the good things about pomegranates is that nothing is wasted— from the roots of the plant to the outer layer of the fruit. It can be used for eating and juice, medical products, cosmetics, oil, worming and ruminant animals, and natural red dye. FPA holds its annual meeting on October 10 in Lake Alfred. For tickets, or more information, visit

Peach varieties more suitable for Florida’s mild climate have made growing peaches possible with fewer chill hours. UF varieties have made them an interesting option for citrus growers and others who want to capitalize on crop’s spring marketing window from mid-March through April.

At the Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee, hydroponics was a popular topic. This year, the program topics were more advanced, although there was a mix of offerings. “It was more attractive to existing growers,” Hochmuth says.

The Small Farms Conference drew nearly 600 this year and showcased 74 exhibits, 17 educational posters, and several livestock demonstrations. It included 21 educational presentations and 57 speakers.

The conference included instruction on how to handle dressed poultry safely, Henry shares, because farm-to-consumer sales of dressed poultry and eggs are now allowed.