Amid the area's traditional farm fields, there's one operation that seems out of place. Its fields aren't plowed, there aren't any tractors or sprinklers, and farmers won't sow the plants in dirt. The operation, 3 Boys Farm, isn't very noticeable. It sits behind a fence on a small plot in Ruskin. And once workers install its rainwater recycling system, solar panels and wind turbines, this farm will be almost off the grid.
Robert Tornello, 54, is designing and building an organic, hydroponic farm. He had a successful career as a bamboo nursery owner and landscape designer, and now he's focusing on the sustainable project he always dreamed of.
"We're beyond green," said Tornello, a ponytailed, self-described hippie. "But this is how I roll. This is what I do."
Plants will grow inside greenhouses in chilled, nutrient-rich water that is recycled through a system of pipes and 3,000-gallon tanks. Ultraviolet light will purify the water, so there's no need for chemical additives, Tornello said.
"The fun part is that we are going to reuse the water and be an example for other farms," he said. "Traditional farms have just wasted water for decades."
The Southwest Florida Water Management District recently awarded the farmer a $50,000 grant for his rainwater harvesting system. The grant came from the district's Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems, or FARMS, program, which helps with farmers' water conservation projects. Tornello's farm will reduce groundwater pumping by about 12,000 gallons per day, program officials estimate.
"I'm excited," said Randal Cooper, the Swiftmud engineer in charge of this project. "It's a neat idea, and Robert is a very inventive, very creative guy."
It's an important project because farms are some of the biggest water users in the district, Cooper said.
Tornello studied farmers' water conservation efforts in Holland and Israel before beginning his project. He hasn't been impressed with local efforts.
"In Florida, everyone has a pump-and-dump mentality," he said.
But because the state is prone to drought, that doesn't work, he said, especially as more Hillsborough County land is slated for development.
"The time to do this is now," he said. "We can't do business as usual."
But progress doesn't come cheaply. A project like this costs $1 million an acre. Tornello is building four greenhouses on an acre. He hopes to add more.
But once he gets the system running, his farm won't be very costly because it's so efficient, he said. With the use of wind turbines and solar panels, Tornello hopes to sell power back to Tampa Electric during off-peak hours.
"Plus, you have the good feeling that you're doing the right thing," he said.
Tornello plans to grow a wide variety of produce year-round at 3 Boys Farm, named after his three sons. He hopes to sell his organic, hydroponic food directly to local chefs and schools at the same prices as traditional produce.
"Because the farm is so efficient, it can be cheap," he said.
He doesn't anticipate he'll sell to grocery stores, but he hopes to further a partnership with the school district and offer educational tours of his farm.
"They are the future — and they're not only the future farmers, but they're also the future consumers," he said. "I really feel that they need to be the ones to go back to their parents and say, 'This is the way we need to buy our food, and this is what we need to be eating for our health.' "
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.