Get It Fresh: From Aeroponic Farm to Your Table
With seven mouths to feed, it’s understandable why Scott Gabriel decided to try his hand at urban farming.
Like most people, the family tried planting their own garden, but it didn’t work out so well in their Merritt Island soil. So they turned to technology. Gabriel went big and soil-less with professional aeroponics. He started small, but the gardening bug bit hard.
“Grocery prices were going nuts, so we bought a residential aeroponics tower garden,” he said. “It was easy and fun.”
He later stumbled upon commercial towers for sale near The Villages, a few hours from Brevard County, and, like potato chips, he was no longer content with having just one tower. So he purchased the entire lot.
He and his large clan are currently organizing things for the launch of Flip Flop Farming, an urban aeroponics farm that will sell fresh fruits and veggies grown without soil on commercial-grade aeroponics towers. Folks who want to enhance the farm-to-table experience can opt to harvest their own produce themselves.
“People can come in with a basket and fill it up,” he said.
A gamut of produce will be available, from watermelon and cantaloupes to cucumbers and tomatoes. For the true aeroponics VIP experience, customers can rent one of Flip Flop Farms’ commercial towers, which each contain 48 grow ports.
“We manage the nutrients, pH, equipment and electricity and you plant what you want and harvest as often as you like,” he said.
According to Gabriel, the flavor of produce grown in such fashion is superior to the grocery store variety. They used to buy strawberries weekly, for example.
“When my 9-year-old daughter got her first taste of a strawberry grown in the tower, her eyes got big and she said, “Dad, that strawberry just punched me in the tongue with flavor, like in a good way!’
“It’s better than organic, because even most of that is trucked for miles and loses flavor and nutrition. Here, you pick the produce where you are and when it’s ready.”
Family All In
Aeroponics is only the most recent of Gabriel’s many ventures. A minister and author, he is in the business of growing businesses and serves as consultant to companies around the world. His kids — other than 26-year-old Katrina, who runs her own spa in California — are home and willing and eager to help with the new farm. Ranging in age from 9 to 28, each is involved in different ways
“They’re very talented kids,” Gabriel said.
Parker is the computer whiz who developed an aeroponics garden app. Derek is the engineer and farm manager. David is the go-to guy for all-around assistance. Jason has an outside job with an air conditioning firm, but he turns into an aeroponics farmer on weekends and 9-year-old Trinity does her best not to be outdone by her brothers.
Derek notes the physical and psychological benefits of his Flip Flop Farming job.
“I never used to eat veggies, but what we grow tastes so much better than anything we’ve ever gotten from the store…now I am hooked,” he said. “I love working on the family farm. It is so much different, even therapeutic, versus a regular job.”
Although mom, Mary, holds down a “regular” job at Viera Elementary, she provides the inspiration and knowledge to grow things.
“She is the one with the green thumb,” Gabriel said.
Aeroponics, a form of hydroponics, achieves success by controlling the plants’ environment. Both aeroponics and hydroponics eschew the use of soil to grow plants. With hydroponics, the roots are irrigated with a nutrient-rich solution, while with aeroponics, the nutrients are systematically sprayed directly onto the roots.
Although it looks cool and new, the concept of aeroponics has been kicking around since the early 1900’s. Aeroponics kits were commercially available in the 1980’s.
If you ever embarked on Epcot Center’s “Living with the Land” boat ride, you undoubtedly saw first-hand the fruits of aeroponics. In a partnership with NASA, Disney for years has explored ways to best grow food aeroponically. They even serve the food grown on site at the Epcot attraction’s eateries.
NASA gave aeroponics a big boost through research into the technology, with the aim of growing food during long space flights because the system uses 90% less space, 98% less water and has 300% faster growth and 30% more yield than traditional soil-based farming.
Brevard’s resident plant expert Sally Scalera worked at The Land before she became the county’s University of Florida/IFAS Extension agent. She remembers that while the system produced amazingly good crops, it required complete control of the environment, or things could go wrong rapidly.
“One time, we had an issue with tobacco mosaic virus,” she said.
The virus, suspected to have been carried on the hands of a tour visitor (and smoker), quickly spread through the greenhouse.
But Gabriel said most tower gardeners grow on outdoor towers, with no control of the outdoor environment, without such issues. Aeroponics is a productive method to garden at home. Gabriel is working with a residential tower manufacturer to offer homeowners the option of growing their own produce and will outfit these DIYers with both seedlings and starter plants.
“You have healthy produce you can harvest from your porch,” Scalera said
And about the name — the Gabriels, transplants from South Dakota, had farmer friends back home ask about their new endeavor in Florida. Scott would show them his lush green backyard oasis and then angled the camera down to his feet.
“See, here we are in winter, farming in flip flops,” he said.