By Frank Giles
It is often said that real estate is all about location, location, location. The same can be said for the concept of local food systems. Farms being near the population they serve is a key element to success.
There might be no better example of a prime location to establish a farm than The Villages in Central Florida.
What started as a small mobile home park called Orange Blossom Gardens has steady grown over the years and is now home to more than 150,000 residents (or Villagers in local parlance).
The community owns the land and infrastructure for continued growth for years to come. Part of that growth includes local farming to provide residents with fresh produce. In 2018, ground broke for the construction of
The Villages Grown greenhouse operation to help achieve that goal. The farm has about 7 acres of production under cover and is ramping up for continued growth.
“From the happiness perspective, The Villages seems to have that pretty well cornered — from the town squares with shopping, food, entertainment every night, to our golf and pickleball,” says Drew Craven, executive director of The Villages Grown. “On the health side, the community has introduced many amenities to support the residents, from hospitals already in place to the upcoming health park and of course nutrition. That’s where The Villages consulted with agricultural experts in the field to develop the concept of The Villages Grown.”
Craven notes the placement of the farm centrally in The Villages community is considered prime real estate.
One of the biggest lessons in agricultural marketing is knowing where what you grow is going to be sold before you grow it. That has been a foundation of The Villages Grown business model.
“First and foremost, this farm was built to serve our community. The residents have been very excited about the farm and the ability to access food grown right here on the property, so we’ve always had strong demand,” says Rebecca Reis-Miller, director of business development for The Villages Grown.
The farm markets its produce to restaurants within the community and supplies local Villages Publix and Winn Dixie grocery stores. The market footprint also is expanding beyond The Villages borders. The farm is now supplying produce to Publix stores in the Ocala area. The Villages Grown also has its own retail establishment in the community, which has been wildly popular.
Additionally, the farm supplies private label requests from marketers and works with food service suppliers like FreshPoint. Reis-Miller says there’s plenty of room to grow. The company’s pricing model also is attractive to buyers.
“Rather than chasing market volatility, which is generally how the produce market operates, we offer guaranteed pricing year-round,” Craven says. Markets can skyrocket at times, like when romaine went up to $100 per case. To avoid that, our customers can lock in a reasonable and sustainable price. That’s good for our farm and their business.”
And because production is so consistent and of good quality, customers have better reliability of supply.
“We know that when we plant 1,000 heads of lettuce, at a certain date we will have close to 1,000 heads of lettuce grown to fit perfectly in a clamshell ready for sale,” Craven says.
Jamie Giroux, senior manager of technology for the farm, is a critical team member helping to ensure all processes operate smoothly to get the finished product delivered to customers on a timely basis. Produce is delivered at peak freshness because of proximity to the farm.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
Another foundational principle of The Villages Grown is collaboration with local, smaller partner farms who help fill in demand for various products during the year. It is a win-win situation and bolsters the concept of local food systems.
“For us, it’s very important to support and partner with local farms in Central Florida,” Reis-Miller says. “We incorporate their locally grown items, some of which are organic, into our products. We also partner with farms that take crops we grow and turn them into artisan products like salad dressings.”
While The Villages Grown is expanding, it is still a relatively small farm compared to others in Florida. Craven says, because of that, another collaboration has been important in the farm’s early success. The farm has worked with Good Grow, a purchasing broker, for key supplies and inputs.
“The company works with smaller farms that typically don’t have the resources to order in bulk and achieve savings like large farms,” Craven says. “They are a purchasing partner for anything from protective equipment, growth media, seed, fertilizers and more. It really helps smaller farms achieve some scale.”
Since the first crops were planted in the greenhouse, The Villages Grown team has been working to optimize the crop mix and production practices. Early on, multiple crops were experimented with, including green beans, sugar snap peas, cucurbits, jalapeños and more.
“Over time, we’ve streamlined our production. Now we are growing five varieties of lettuce, five varieties of herbs, two primary tomato varieties and 10 microgreens,” says Rachael Skiles, technical grower for The Villages Grown.
The product selection was honed down to focus on growing the crops the team grows best, although they’ve had success growing most things in the controlled environment of the greenhouse. There are also market factors that come into play. The farm had a larger tomato production footprint, which has been scaled back.
“What happens with tomatoes is about nine months out of the year, the market is flooded and prices drop,” Craven says. “So, we’ve scaled tomato production back to include beefsteak and heirloom grape varieties. We have enough volume to satisfy our residents’ needs. We will be producing about 90,000 pounds per year, which is much smaller than before, but we decided let’s grow and distribute here inside our property. The residents want to buy our locally grown product and are willing to pay a consistent price.”
When the greenhouses were built, software to manage operations was installed. Technology provider Priva is used to manage and monitor many operations on the farm. Environmental conditions within the greenhouse can be controlled to optimize growing conditions for each crop. The technology has allowed the production team to further perfect their production recipe for each variety. The result is very consistent quality and yields.
“The system allows us to monitor and control our shading, exhaust fans and cooling walls, and it monitors nutrient levels, lights, temperature and humidity,” Skiles says. “It is a very helpful system because I can see what’s happening in the greenhouse right from my laptop from anywhere. At all times, I can see if water and nutrients are flowing to the crops. It saves me a lot of worrying.”
Given Florida’s climate, Skiles stresses the need to stay on top of pest management. Being proactive is key.
“We have a good biological preventative program in place to combat the Florida pest challenges,” she says. “We keep pest levels very low with products that have a good safety profile.”
“What you will notice when you walk through the greenhouses is just how clean they are. Between that and our preventative measures, we do well avoiding major pest issues,” Craven adds. “Our team takes pride in this facility and keeping it clean and looking great.”
Recently, more growing tables were added in the greenhouses to expand production. The farm has added a growth chamber and plant starter section to improve early growth. Crop capacity will be expanding significantly this year. More land is allocated to the farm on the property, so plans for increased acreage are being implemented now.
“The Villages is really great about supporting this farm and the local food concept,” Craven says. “The fact they’ve given us a large tract of land right in the middle of our community is testament to that. We have a great team of employees who believe in what we are doing and love farming, so the sky’s the limit.”