In Wake of Recession, Two Food Evangelists in Search of Sustainable Business Launch Aquaponic Farm
January 8, 2013 | Missy Smith
When Gina Cavaliero and Tonya Penick watched their contracting firm collapse, they had a personal and professional epiphany that would change the course of their lives and work. “It was just awful. We were laying off a lot of people. I was spending sleepless nights trying to find a recession-proof business,” says Cavaliero. In 2008, as their business was failing, the two business partners were introduced to aquaponics by Morning Star Fisherman, a non-profit organization with a mission to use aquaponics as a means to relieve world hunger. “We were amazed and enthralled by it,” she says.
At the same time, the healthy food movement was gaining more momentum, and the business partners were eager to jump on board. “It all culminated at the same time,” she explains. “We were watching movies like Fresh and Food, Inc. All of a sudden we realized there is a huge problem with the way we produce food, and we wanted to be a big part of that change. In 2010, after a personal investment of $36,000 by Cavaliero and Penick, Green Acre Aquaponics was born.
Green Acre Aquaponics currently grows crops such as lettuce greens, herbs, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower and strawberries at their Brooksville, Fla. location. The company is also trying to push the limits of aquaponics with its fig, pineapple, raspberry and blackberry test plants. “We want to see if we can grow some things that typically won’t grow with aquaponics,” says Cavaliero, managing director of Green Acre Aquaponics.
The company’s customers include local and organic food enthusiasts as well as many restaurants in the Brooksville area. “Chefs love that our food is chemical free,” she says. Green Acre Aquaponics also takes its produce to local farmers markets, where Cavaliero says they have a bit of work to do educating people on the importance of fresh, clean and organic food.
Of course, like many other farming startups, Green Acre Aquaponics has opted to run a sort of CSA. “Ours is more like a buying club model,” Cavaliero explains. “We made some changes to the traditional CSA model. We discovered that it was really hard for folks to have $900-1,000 up front for groceries.” So, they decided to offer a buying club that they felt would be more feasible for people to afford. Each week at designated areas, buying club members can pick up a Harvest Bag of fresh fruits, veggies and greens for a lower price than they would find in grocery stores.
But, for Green Acre Aquaponics, growing fresh, healthy food is only part of the equation. They have also set out to get others on board by offering aquaponics training sessions, consultations, farm tours and educational literature. “This has evolved into a really big part of our mission,” explains Cavaliero. “Part of it for us is food evangelism. We want to spread the word. It’s time for a change. We have to take the food revolution back a step and change what we’re growing, not just what we’re eating.
“We want people to grow food with aquaponics. When we got started, there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there. We got down some really good processes, [such as] how to approach and capture markets, how to run buying clubs, how to best help other people in the industry and how to repopulate the landscape with small farms. We figure we can offer people those tools to help them start, run and handle the business side of aquaponics.”
Cavaliero says that the pair was drawn to aquaponics because it is a very sustainable way to grow food that requires minimal external inputs. Green Acre Aquaponics uses 10 percent of the water that is used in common agriculture, she says. “Compared to conventional farming, the environmental taxing is a fraction. [Aquaponics is] pretty much a win-win when it comes to producing food in a sustainable manner.”
In addition to the built-in sustainability aquaponics provides, Green Acre uses several other sustainable techniques on their farm, including composting all farm waste, which later goes into organic soil in their wicking beds or to the chickens that they raise on the farm to supplement their diets. They are also using a rocket mass heater to heat water and burn wood, coal and dry manure.
Like many other startups, Green Acre Aquaponics has had its share of successes, as well as challenges. “Our location is not the most optimal,” Cavaliero explains. “We would love to have a storefront or farm store, but we are not in a great location for that. Fortunately, we are close enough to St. Petersburg and the Tampa area. But, as far as branching out to more restaurants, we have more distance to cover.” And, just like countless other sustainable agriculture ventures, Green Acre Aquaponics finds that bugs and pests make their jobs a bit more difficult. “Pests are always a challenge anytime you’re growing chemical free,” she says.
But, all-in-all, Cavaliero is very optimistic about the future of the aquaponic startup, and says that the company is currently in the process of expanding. “We have great customer demand,” she says. “We will be adding grow space soon and will hopefully set up a farmers market and storefront this year to get a better reach to our customers. We will also continue to promote aquaponics.”
While reaching out to others interested in starting an aquaponics business, they have found that some people are concerned that they will create competition for Green Acre Aquaponics. Cavaliero and Penick are not concerned. “We like to tell people that we want to forget about competition,” explains Cavaliero. “Let’s collaborate. If we can work together, that’s the ticket. We just need more of us. We hope to see many more [aquaponic] farms popping up.”