ST. PETERSBURG — The would-be farmers bought three transoceanic refrigerated shipping containers, just a little dinged up, for $6,500 each.
Shannon O'Malley and Bradley Doyle had them hauled to a distressed property they purchased on Second Avenue S and painted them a vibrant green. The green of John Deere tractors and regimented rows of farm crops.
Because this is what they were building: a farm. Brick Street Farms.
The property had been used as a junkyard and asphalt dump for years. They hauled 57 loads of trash away on a 50-yard dump truck. It took eight months to clean and level the property before they could bring in their three slightly used shipping containers, two rows of picnic tables and a tall fence to discourage the lookie-loos.
You can't blame the loos for looking. This is Pinellas County's first and only commercially sized, indoor, hydroponic farm. These three up-cycled containers have the ability to grow the equivalent of 6 acres of traditionally farmed leafy greens, herbs and edible flowers, using a minimum of water and no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.
There is no dirt, there are no bugs, and produce is delivered "plate ready" to the Vinoy, Brick & Mortar, Rococo Steak, Souzou, Stillwaters Tavern and Bella- Brava, all in St. Petersburg. O'Malley aims to sell everything she produces within 5 miles of Brick Street Farms.
In this era of locavore fever, you can't get much more local than that.
Indoor, hydroponic, vertical farms are popping up in urban spaces around the globe. A dwindling amount of arable land due to industrialization, urban sprawl and climate pressures, coupled with population growth (9 billion people predicted on Earth by 2050!), has led many people to think creatively about our food supply.
Farmer Dave Smiles launched a 24,000-square-foot warehouse in Tampa in 2015 doing similar indoor vertical farming. In the same year in Newark, N.J., a steel-supply company was taken over by a new indoor-agriculture company called AeroFarms. It was filled with 70,000 square feet of vertical kale, bok choi, watercress and such. In January, the New Yorker ran an exuberant article about the future of urban farming without soil or natural light.
But it's not easy: The nation's largest indoor farm, FarmedHere, which opened in 2013 in an abandoned warehouse in Bedford Park, Ill., closed its 90,000-square-foot facility in January. While CEO Nate Laurell didn't say precisely what had gone awry, it is clear that growing large enough to offset equipment, energy and labor costs proved tricky.
There are, O'Malley says, considerable costs to running the operation, but she declined to say what the farm's ongoing costs are.
"Hydroponics aren't new, this technology isn't new and all the technology we used is 'off the shelf,' " said O'Malley, 35, who recently quit her job at Duke Energy to work the farm full time. Doyle, 37, still works in information technology at Duke Energy.
Here's how it works. Each container is its own climate, kale in the one on the right, herbs in the middle and heirloom lettuces on the left. There are 3 inches of insulation, plus reflective roofing to keep things cool, plus air conditioning (lettuces like it chilly, around 60 degrees). Everything is grown from non-GMO heirloom seeds, spending two weeks in the seedling area before each tiny root plug is transplanted to a white vertical tower, fitted into a mesh of recycled food-safe plastic.
The plant lives in the tower for three to five weeks, with recirculated water running down a felt wicking strip to feed the plants.
Strips of red and blue Philips high-efficiency LED lights provide the sunshine (although because electricity is cheaper at night, the plants' "daytime" is in the evening. From there, it gets complicated. Computers take readings of the plants every 7 minutes — pH levels get adjusted, carbon dioxide levels are tweaked, plant nutrients are measured in electrical conductivity and there's special air circulation for proper "plant transpiration."
According to O'Malley, this kind of indoor vertical farming uses one-tenth the water of traditional farming and a tenth of the fuel (a traditional farm uses fuel to run the equipment and deliver product; for an indoor farm, fuel costs are all electricity).
So how does all this high-tech food taste?
Glorious. Basil leaves as big as a catcher's mitt (well, a kid's mitt), rainbow chard and lacinato kale. Pea shoots and micro kohlrabi, arugula and red amaranth. The Vinoy is using a special mix of Brick Street lettuces in salads, and Rococo Steak will host a farm-to-table dinner at the farm Feb. 25.
"It's a much more consistent product and a much cleaner product because it's not grown in dirt," says Jeffrey Jew, executive chef at Stillwaters Tavern and BellaBrava. "It's super cool what they're doing. I know at the beginning Shannon was looking for chefs and restaurants to sell to. But now they're pretty much maxed out."
It's true. O'Malley and Doyle are looking to buy more containers, their goal seven across and stacked two deep. They don't envision doing a community-supported agriculture subscription in which consumers buy a share of a farm, a popular model for more traditional farms. But they do sell direct to the public on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons.
They spend a lot of their time explaining what they're doing. No, they're not growing cannabis. No, it's not U-pick. No, it's not open to the public. And it's not a garden. It's not a laboratory.
It's a farm. You just have to think inside the box.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.