Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Everybody needs to eat..."

How one farm got off the ground in Sarasota


By Kate Spinner Sarasota Herald-Tribune


Published: Monday, January 4, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 10:50 p.m.
SARASOTA - In an industrial park about a mile from Main Street, mechanics repair cars, cleaners launder draperies and Vincent Dessberg grows crops on the roof of his old glass shop.



Dessberg used to fuse glass into colorful windows. But after the economic downturn he turned from the kiln, seeing better opportunity on his 3,000 square-foot roof.

"Nobody needs glass. Everybody needs to eat," he said.

His lettuce is selling at the Sarasota Downtown Farmer's Market. Other fruits and vegetables -- cauliflower, okra, goji berries -- are bound for dinner plates at some of the city's best restaurants.

With about 6,000 plants, this new small farm is by far the most urban in the county. Crops grow vertically in 180 hydroponic planters that stand about six feet tall.

Another 114 pots border a shaded chain link fence that keeps people and plants from plunging to the asphalt below.

While big cities such and New York and Montreal embraced rooftop agriculture a few years ago, Dessberg is setting this green trend in Sarasota on a commercial scale.

Pipes transport water and fertilizer above a dizzying maze of green. Clusters of ripening strawberries and fat green tomatoes dangle from hearty vines. Heads of lettuce and leaves of broccoli and arugula burst from a soil of coconut husk and perlite.

The list of crops seems endless: cucumbers, broccoli, squash, peppers, mustard greens beans, cauliflower, herbs. Innterest from restaurants is growing, said John Matthews, founder of Suncoast Food Alliance, a business that connects area restaurants with fresh produce from local farmers.

"A little bit of it is the novelty," Matthews said. "Restaurants can use that as an enticement."

The hydroponic set-up, including plants, cost $25,000. If sales go well, Dessberg plans to expand to other roofs. Already, he said, he has an offer of roof space from a neighboring business.

He is also considering opening a small restaurant himself in the shop space.

The farm began as a home experiment. Dessberg bought about 50 hydroponic stacks last year and learned growing techniques. He had enough success that he planned to expand horizontally on a neighbor's three acres, until the deal fell through.

Later, he logged on to Google Earth, the computer program allowing people to zoom in on satellite images globally. His farming inspiration came from the colorful rooftops of Tokyo.

Now, he wants everyone with a flat roof to follow his lead.

"If it's a flat roof it should have farming. If it's a slanted roof it should have solar panels," Dessberg said.

Although the rooftop approach is unique, Dessberg is not in uncharted territory.

Hydroponic farming can be a profitable businesses, said John Lawson, owner of Hydro Harvest Farms in Ruskin.

After "a six figure expenditure" in the business five years ago, Lawson expects a profit this year or next.

Lawson has volume on his side. He grows 25,000 plants on about an acre -- an amount that would take six to seven acres on a conventional farm.

He turned to hydroponics because of limited space and to conserve water. The method demands just 20 percent of the water a traditional farm needs.

Rooftop hydroponics also appeals to Lawson. He is partnering with Florida Aquarium in Tampa to build a hydroponic farm on the roof there next year.

Those rooftop vegetables will not go to restaurants, however. Instead, the crops will feed fish.

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