It sounds like something plucked out of science fiction, but many consider urban farming to be the future of the agriculture industry.
According to some projections, 70 percent of the human race will be living in some sort of metropolitan area by the year 2050. And if that's not enough reason to garner support for "hyperlocal" farming, consider the health effects of the "mass produced" food industry, high unemployment for skilled laborers, and even national security concerns over the safety of the domestic food supply.
One-third of all agriculture currently produced in the United States is the result of urban farming techniques and that amount continues to grow. Consumers are able to visit the place where their food is grown, ask questions about how it's grown, and the farm's close proximity to major cities eases the need for long distance transportation.
Lee County is on the forefront of urban farming with new operations opening every year. It has become so trendy that the county teamed up with University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to host a tour where current and retired farmers can learn about cutting edge methods.
Four farms - each open less than a year - were visited by a bus full of "agrotourists" on Feb. 27 as part of the Lee County Urban Farm Tour.
One agrotourist, Dolores McGregor, said most of her friends had never heard about urban farming before. She registered for the tour to learn how it all worked, and maybe pass on that knowledge to others who were willing to make a difference.
"We are from up north and there are so many vacant buildings that could be used for this," she said.
Better Food Farm, the first stop on the tour, was on a dirt road in Estero, Fla. The bus and its occupants turned off Corkscrew Road and onto a shady path leading to a metal gate next to a retention pond. Rows of leafy green plants were beyond the gate, some underneath metal pavilions covered in stretched plastic, a familiar sight for any urban farm.
The farm is managed by owners Chad and Helen Jonas, and their 7-year-old daughter who helps pick the crop. Occasionally they bring in two full-time workers to help when things get busy, but the farm is exactly what you would imagine as "family owned and operated."
Chad Jonas, a former builder and developer from Philadelphia, Penn., started to learn about organic food and nutrition after being diagnosed with a degenerative disease that left him in a wheelchair for two years. He found that the cleaner he ate, the better he felt, and today he is out of the wheelchair and working on the farm full-time.
None of the plants at BFF are in the ground, instead they sit in planters filled with coconut coir and pine mulch rather than ground soil, and because of this he doesn't need to worry about replenishing the nutrients on the property. He uses fish and seaweed emulsion as organic fertilizer, and natural substances such as copper sulfate, hydrogen peroxide, or pepper spray as on-the-spot insecticides. Another advantage of using the planters, he said, was that he didn't have to worry about run-off.
Chad Jonas said that BFF grew 30,000 plants that would account for eight acres of conventional crop, but like many urban farming facilities, his planters are stacked on top of each other to maximize space and water usage. The family keeps it exciting by trying out unique plants from all over the world.
"I love to experiment and try new things," said Chad Jonas, pulling a purple carrot out of a planter. "Purple is one of my daughter's favorite colors. She loves different colored carrots."
The Jonas family dedicated one section of the farm to experiment with Guava, blueberries, figs, ginger, and even Yucca. Ghost peppers - formerly the hottest pepper in the world at 1.5 million Scoville units, a standard for measuring heat - were ready to be harvested last month and orders have already been placed. Coincidentally, last year's hottest pepper on record, according to the Associated Press, was the Carolina Reaper at 2.2 million Scoville units.
BFF offers a produce club where members can make specific orders that are delivered to their doorsteps, as long as they live "from Fort Myers to downtown Naples and over to Ave Maria." Chad Jonas said arrangements could be made for residents outside of that delivery zone to pick up orders from a predetermined spot.
He said it's easy to taste the difference between produce shipped across the country versus that which was picked only a few hours of reaching your doorstep.
"With the taste of the vegetables you'll notice a difference just in the freshness. You'll notice it's sweeter," said Chad Jonas.
With large distributors a certain amount of produce spoils or is thrown out by retailers, but he said BFF works hard to ensure nothing goes to waste.
"Whatever we don't use or doesn't go to market, if it's edible we give it to charity or we use it for our animals. Nothing goes to waste here."
In fact, the farm animals are important to the entire operation of the farm. Free range chickens feed on small insects that would otherwise go after the crop, but facing a Florida Panther preserve that also boasts a healthy black bear population makes it challenging to protect the wandering animals. Chad Jonas said he recently invested in a Boerboel, an African dog from the mastiff family that is trained to protect against large predators such as lions and hyenas.
For more information on Better Food Farm, find them on Facebook.
- This article is the first in a four-part series about farms visited during the 2014 Lee County Urban Farm Tour.