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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Startup Profile: Urban Micro Farm Concept to Bring Fresh and Sustainable Produce to Floridians

September 19, 2011 |

The start of something great can oftentimes be the result of a series of unfortunate events.

That’s how Fort Lauderdale Vegetables LLC, a company that is focused on the development of a sustainable urban farming system that will create a network of secure healthy food sources and provide local jobs and vocational training in the sustainable agricultural industry, came into being in 2010.

In the 1980s, the company’s founder Michael Madfis, an architect with over 30 years of experience, was told he had a degenerative eye condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. While he was able to keep his vision for many years after the diagnosis, in 2006 much of the world around him came crashing down – his business lost all of its assets, and he became legally blind.

“We essentially went personally bankrupt,” Madfis said. “We tried to figure out what we could do.”

And that is exactly what Madfis did. In 2008, he, along with his daughter Haylee, sought to find a solution to reinstall community farms into the urban context in order to grow food right where it is eaten rather than somewhere most of us have never been. So with the aim of creating a cost-effective means of eliminating waste in the food delivery system and producing a higher quality of food in the process,  the self-sustaining urban micro farm concept behind Fort Lauderdale Vegetables soon emerged.

The Micro Farm

According to the Fort Lauderdale Vegetables website, the company “studied methods of micro farming currently in use for two years and developed a system that uses 85% less water than conventional in grown farming while increasing productivity by 400% in the same area of land.”

The growing methods that Madfis utilizes are almost entirely self-sustaining. All vegetables are grown in planter bags – cylindrical mesh bags that allow air to reach the roots, water to drain efficiently and the roots to move freely – rather than in rows tilled into the ground. This allows the roots to remain cooler in the hot southern Florida climate, and is also ideal for growing a large amount of vegetables in a small area. There are typically six compost receptacles within a micro farm, and these generate all the soil used by the plants. Drip irrigation is used from a rainwater collection cistern, and is mixed with compost tea runoff from the compost bins to create nutrient-rich growing media that helps the plants thrive without added fertilizers.

“You won’t find a label on the farm” from fertilizers or pesticides, Madfis said. They also add natural items to help fertilize the plants, like seaweed from area beaches, fish heads and tails from local markets and earthworm droppings from vermicompost.

The company is currently working with a number of organizations and entrepreneurs to start urban micro farms in Florida.

In May 2010, the company took on its first project with the Miramar Community Garden in Miramar, Florida. Mayor Lori Moseley was seeking to start a community garden when Madfis suggested his approach using permaculture and community-building methods rather than the traditional community garden model. Typically in that model, people rent a plot in the community garden and work it on their own, supplying their own array of store bought fertilizers and working without the assistance of a farmer or gardener who knows how to raise the best vegetables, Madfis said. He added that when you factor in all of the trips driving back and forth to a gardening or hardware store, driving to the garden plot, and all of the various fertilizers and pesticides involved, one tomato could end up being worth $30 as a result of all the wasted fuel and fertilizers used.

Business Model

Madfis is working to establish a franchise-type business model, wherein Fort Lauderdale Vegetables will consult on the setup of a customer’s micro farm, and then hand over control to the franchisee to handle future development once it’s up and running.

The cost to set up a micro farm is around $20,000, but Madfis said a 30,000 square foot farm can produce around $50,000 worth of food. After initial installation, the micro farm costs very little to maintain, because of its self-sustaining nature, he said. 75% of the produce grown on a micro farm will be designated for sale to consumers and local business – 25% through a CSA program, and the other 50% will go to a single market or restaurant. The remaining 25% of the food produced on each micro farm will be given to volunteers working there and to area food pantries.

Challenges

The company has been operating with the help of grants since its inception, but financing is proving to be the biggest hurdle to overcome. “The work is profitable, but we don’t have much work,” Madfis said.

While the projects the company has taken on have been a good source of cash flow, Madfis hopes to gain more momentum and a steadier source of income as Fort Lauderdale Vegetables moves forward. “There’s a huge amount of interest,” Madfis said. “There’s just a number of institutions taking a long time.”

Florida residents have embraced the farm to table movement, but unlike other areas of the country, there are very few local and organic producers in the state despite the presence of a large conventional farming industry that grows fruits like oranges and bananas.

“In Florida, there is no tabletop food, it’s all industrial,” Madfis said. “There are five to 10 small farms that can serve 10 – 20,000 people, but the population here is in the millions. There’s no way those little farms can support that population.”

Madfis hopes to create enough micro farms in southern Florida to overcome this obstacle and bring food production back to the forefront of people’s minds. The farms create a sense of community and pride that is otherwise lost in today’s urban landscape, he said. “Having a farm in the community reminds people that you grow something.”

The Future

Five years down the road, he hopes a network of micro farms will exist throughout Broward County, Fla. – there are 31 cities in the county, and his long-term goal is to have around 25 farms per city with two professional gardeners employed at each. In case you’re doing the math, that would lead to the creation of 1,550 new jobs. “The biggest problem is going to be the people,” he said. “But there is that potential.”

The start to this business has been perhaps a little slow moving and intermittent, but the same could be said for any small business venture. Madfis is confident that the interest generated so far, and the demand for sustainably grown food and community oriented farming is enough to propel Fort Lauderdale Vegetables into the future.

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