Through Local Sourcing and Hydroponic Towers, Urban Farmer Delivers Fresh Produce to South Florida
March 18, 2013 | Abbie Stutzer
In many urban areas across the nation, access to fresh, locally grown and produced food is difficult to come by, and South Florida is no exception. Seeing an opportunity to address challenges to local food availability in this area, The Urban Farmer, a Pompano Beach, Fla.-based organization that grows and sources locally grown food, was launched to meet the demands of South Florida residents for locally and sustainably grown food. While The Urban Farmer is still in startup mode, it’s garnering support and keeping afloat because of its founders’ love of educating – and feeding – Floridians awesome, local produce.
I recently got in touch with Stephen Hill, a principal at The Urban Farmer, to find out how and why the organization was founded, how Urban Farmer serves Florida and what the organization has planned for the 2013 season.
Seedstock: How did Urban Farmer come to be?
Stephen Hill: The organization came to be after the real estate crash of 2007. One of the founders, Jon Albee, had a successful building and remodeling company that saw business slow. It was originally conceived as a resource and supply company for serious home-food growers. He tested many different systems and found the Verti-Gro hydroponic systems seemed the best suited to South Florida climate. Also, Earthbox soil systems. The farm was conceived as a demo farm, but the scope quickly grew and they leased a nearly 1-acre lot of industrial property next to a junkyard and gravel pit in north Broward County. They installed over 500 vertical towers and several hundred Jackpot Growing Bags and started learning what could be grown. A CSA emerged as well.
In 2012, the farm was very successful – we grew more than 31 crops hydroponically and pioneered knowledge about what crops could be grown in the 10b zone (plant hardiness zone).
Seedstock: Can you tell me about your farm-share program and how you work with other farmers?
Stephen Hill: Our farm-share program supports about six farms, all in Palm Beach County. Broward County was once mostly ag, but now there are almost no farms. Our primary partner farm is Erickson Farm. The Erickson family has been on the property for 101 years. They are a premium grower of mango and avocado, but they are expanding into veggie production to provide an alternative income in the winter. Their legacy is within the great fruit trees. We also work with a certified-organic farm (1-acre) run by a family of Haitian immigrants. Another is a larger commercial operation, but organically certified. We have a wonderful source of Thai bananas and jackfruit, and sapodilla from a small farm owned by an Indian immigrant family — Yagnaparush farm. We have a Sprinter truck and make pick ups from the farms every Thursday. All of our partner farms use conventional dirt farming. Erickson farm grows in the amazing dark, black, muck of the Lake Okeechobee area.
We are 100 percent local in our farm-share and market offering. Average distance from farm to market is less than 40 miles. Summers are very difficult for local farms as it is too hot to grow most commercial crops. We do our best to source from organic farms in neighboring states through an organic distributor.
Seedstock: What projects is the organization currently working on?
Stephen Hill: We have a farm share/CSA based out of our offices/market. Most members pick up from the market, but we do have a few other pickup locations. Our market (which has food for sale to the public) is open on Friday and Saturday — we pick up the harvest from the farms on Thursday. We also sell eggs and local yogurt, and other items including our own wheatgrass tray system, and much more.
We will be opening two new farms for the 2013 fall growing season. One has been approved as part of a farm park in Oakland Park, Florida and the other will anchor a redevelopment project in Old Pompano Beach, Florida, also in Broward County. In Oakland Park, we will be part of a re-branding of the central business area as a culinary district.
Seedstock: What do you think is most important when supporting local farmers?
Stephen Hill: The key to supporting local farmers is creating a reliable demand. Traditional food sellers are not able to meet that demand. Commercial, urban agriculture can be viable with the combination of a marketplace and farm-share program. The second component of the organization’s brand is that we can develop properties to be beautiful and productive.
Seedstock: Is the operation profitable?
Stephen Hill: We are not profitable, but we are in start-up mode. We are investing in marketing and in infrastructure. We are attracting a great staff who want to be involved, and help improve the physical and economic health of our community. We understand this is a slow money investment. Our focus is on having happy customers and efficient operations.