Chris Ryan zips down aisles of baby white squash and Japanese eggplant. He pulls his golf cart to a stop in front of a red okra plant, getting out to admire its cream-colored blossom. The farm around him is clean and streamlined. Ground covers trap disease below the soil surface. Trellises, sometimes covered by tomato vines, extend skyward. Plants rest in identical plastic pots in rows. In a greenhouse, plastic and Styrofoam towers overflow with lime basil, Swiss chard and rosemary.
This is Natural Health Family Farm, a business Ryan started about two years ago. The operation is hydroponic — meaning the plants are grown in mineral solutions without soil — an increasingly popular technique among beginning farmers in the bay area.
"I started just growing food for myself," said Ryan, 33, "but it became an addiction."
Ryan, an entrepreneur, and agricultural director Tommy Sapp, a former chef, are beginning farmers. Neither grew up surrounded by fields of produce, but they've found that their unconventional skill sets work well on the farm.
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Ryan's background as an athlete, entrepreneur and engineer led him down various career paths. He played college and professional football, started a fireproofing company and created a massage therapy business out of his Plant City home.
Farming, he thought, could present another business opportunity. Ryan took classes and talked to other farmers to learn the growing system. Now that the business is operational, he uses his engineering knowledge to implement the science behind hydroponic produce and his business acumen to sell the fresh veggies to personal trainers.
As with all of his ventures, Ryan developed a niche pool of customers in order to keep up with his commercial competitors. He posted an ad on Craigslist this year looking for a farmer with connections in the restaurant industry.
Sapp, a St. Petersburg native and former chef, didn't know how to grow a tomato, but he certainly knew how to cook one. He had earned accolades for his food in New Orleans, and after returning home in 2001, cooked his way through Pinellas County kitchens. He spent time as a chef at Redwoods in St. Petersburg and the Peninsula Inn & Spa's Six Tables in Gulfport.
Early in his career, Sapp worked in celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's first restaurant, Emeril's New Orleans. He remembers when a basket of produce was delivered to Lagasse's kitchen in the mid 1990s. The basket brimmed with Cherokee purple tomatoes and popcorn sprouts, he said. The exotic vegetables were foreign to him.
"As a chef, I always wanted to sell my customers this kind of stuff," said Sapp, 34, who lives in St. Petersburg. "As a chef, I always wanted to be a farmer."
After years in the kitchen, Sapp and his father began looking for farmland in Mississippi and Louisiana. When his father died this year, Sapp knew it was time to get serious.
By the time he found Ryan's ad, the chef had begun consuming every book he could find about farming.
"What are the chances that I would meet Chris," Sapp said, "someone that is into all the stuff I was interested in?"
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Inside the greenhouse, Ryan pulls a few leaves of basil from a plant, rubbing them between his fingers.
Ryan says the farm now pays for itself. The hydroponic equipment cost about $55,000 to install, but the beginning farmer thinks it was worth the gamble.
"When does hard work and consistent effort not pay off?" he asked.
Ryan and Sapp have contacted restaurants, provided chefs with samples and offered to grow any produce they need. Now the farmers' vegetables and herbs dot menus at Wood Fired Pizza in North Tampa, the Hangar Lounge in Town 'N Country and Parkshore Grill in St. Petersburg.
Tapping into niche markets — chefs and personal trainers — has proved fruitful for the fledgling business, but Ryan constantly dreams of new ways to turn a profit.
The duo has started delivering produce baskets to area residents and businesses. The tubs cost $15 to $30 and are sold weekly. Sapp said he has been playing around with the idea of packaging recipes with the produce.
Standing in the greenhouse, surrounded by towers of seed trays and mazes of pipes, Sapp remembers a phrase often repeated in Lagasse's kitchen. It's a mantra he brought from the kitchen to the farm.
"Practice your craft."
Sarah Hutchins can be reached at [email protected]