By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
BOKEELIA, Fla. — A big tour bus looked out of place on the single-lane, rutted gravel road in front of Pine Island Botanicals in southwestern Florida. But the small farm is getting big attention since an article about Mike Wallace’s biodynamic and hydroponic farming methods was published in a national magazine.
Pine Island Botanicals, a year-round grower, produces avocados, papayas, mangoes, carambolas (star fruit), macadamia, lychee and citrus. The biggest crop is the organic lettuce grown hydroponically in two shade houses.
The only livestock are free-range chickens, which eat the leftovers and whose manure is appreciated almost as much as their eggs. The produce is sold at four farmers’ markets and local restaurants.
“This is a biodynamic operation,” Wallace said. “We use no chemicals, no pesticides and no synthetic products. Everything we use on the farm is either a natural product or our own compost. Nothing that is produced on the farm goes to waste; it is reused, it goes right back into the soil.”
Wallace brings in as little as possible from outside the farm. He wants to keep the operation “as clean and pure as possible.” He cannot produce the huge amounts of vegetables that big growers can, but instead raises mainly salad greens and seasonal products.
“We do 24 different varieties of lettuce, nine different types of mustards, we do seasonal tomatoes, eggplant, peppers,” he said. “Chicken is the only livestock and they are part of our operation. We grow herbs; the whole gamut.”
Wallace started seven years ago doing conventional farming. Two years ago he started experimenting with hydroponics as an insurance policy, he said. “We ran into two hard freezes and we lost probably 70 percent of our crop,” he explained. “It put us out of business for about eight or nine weeks, by the time we replanted.
“With the hydroponics, we’re able to ‘button up’ (drop the plastic frost cloth sides) our buildings and we can keep these buildings about 45 degrees in a hard freeze with no extra heat, for about 10 hours, by utilizing our groundwater and the water in the tubes.”
He built a multi-tiered static (the water is still, does not flow) hydroponic system for growing lettuce greens, for $4,000, including labor. It worked so well that in January 2012 he doubled the house, totally enclosing it in anti-viral screening.
Wallace starts the seeds in a sterile mix. Once sprouted, the seedlings are placed in the hydroponic system. The plants are nourished by his own mix of nutrients; he is experimenting with warm manure teas. He uses a pressure washer to clean the pipes.
“This has worked out so well, it is now a 50/50 part of our operation,” Wallace said. “We’re growing strawberries, peppers, basils, lettuces, tomatoes in 5,000 sites (little cups).”
Wallace is partners with Christine Lindsey, also known as “The Sprout Queen.” She grows sunflower and buckwheat greens and wheatgrass in trays. After the greens are harvested, the remains go to “the girls,” a mixed flock of chickens.
“When they’re done tearing it apart, they will have composted it for me, they will have given me some fertilizer and I will dig out about a foot-deep worth of soil and that will go back out into the fields,” Wallace said.
From those fields will come colorful gourmet foods, many with exotic flavors that he will offer the public. He likes introducing people to new foods.
“I am into the ‘wow factor,’” he said. “I love giving something new to people and getting them to experience a taste sensation. It is so much fun.”
Becoming The Sprout Queen
For a couple of years Lindsey has also been known as “The Sprout Queen.” She sells freshly harvested organic alfalfa, broccoli, fennel, fenugreek, radish, red and crimson clover, purple kohlrabi and onion sprouts. She also has a weekly crop of sunflower greens and wheatgrass grown in seed trays.
Lindsey first learned about sprouts because she wanted to grow wheatgrass for her rescue cat. The cat didn’t like it, but in the process Lindsey learned how healthy it was to eat greens and sprouts. Then she met Wallace; he asked for extra sunflower greens to take to a farmers’ market. They sold like the proverbial hotcakes.
Wallace and Lindsey became partners. “So, in December of 2009 the ‘Sprout Queen’ was born,” she explained.
Lindsey built a box from hurricane panels to contain the growing sprouts. She plumbed a misting system that is connected to a timer so the sprouts are watered at timed intervals.
It takes anywhere from 6-12 days to grow some of the sprouts. They are usually harvested and sold within two days. Because of the care and the way they are grown, Lindsey will eat them more than two weeks later and they’re fine.
“They are actually a number of times, more nutritional than any of their mature counterparts,” she said. “All of the energy that it takes to grow a radish is in this one little sprout – it is compacted.
“You have to wait 30 to 45 days to eat just the radish. Right here you’re eating the whole plant.
“It takes 100-plus days for an onion (to grow). An onion sprout (sold for $2 an ounce) takes about 10 to 12 days. You never have to cry again,” she quipped.
The sunflower greens are grown from untreated, organic black oil sunflower seeds. They are ready to harvest in about 8-9 days during a Florida winter; in the summer, in only 6 days.
“They are great for a green snack, blender smoothies, you can put them in a salad, you can make a salad out of them,” Lindsey said. “Our local deli uses them in their sandwiches.”
To learn more online, visit www.the sproutqueen.com
For more information on Pine Island, visit www.pineislandbotanicals.com