The road to Selovita on Metro Parkway in Fort Myers was filled with different types of industrial businesses -millworkers, electrical suppliers, granite distributors, and pavers - making it the last place anyone would expect to find an urban farm.
But, for Selovita's unique operation, it doesn't matter whether it's in downtown Fort Myers or the rural fields of central Florida. The interior was warm and mahogany, like stepping into a law office or corporate board room, and a friendly receptionist directed guests to a large presentation room in the back to learn about the company. Selovita is not only an urban farm but also a research and development organization, finding new paths to forge a sustainable future by combining elements of science and technology.
"We have been able to blend science and technology with agriculture, and then microbiology," said Gary Winrow, managing director at Selovita. "We're always looking outside the box to find a way to expand the world of agriculture."
The facility is entirely "biosecure," meaning it uses strict protocols to protect its supplies from pests or disease, and the staff took its defense against unwanted pathogens seriously. Employees wore sterile, white lab coats or smocks, and every doorway was coated with a chemical that eliminated bacteria on the soles of a person's shoes. If the tour had arrived during the harvest, explained Winrow, than the agrotourists would have had to wear a mask, scrubs, and booties to avoid contamination.
Valerie Vivian-Rogers, the director of the Microbiology Lab, said that all of Selovita's produce is rigorously screened for contamination from humans, animals, insects, and even Selovita's own irrigation system.
"We test every batch of lettuce greens and microgreens that come through," said Vivian-Rogers.
Lab personnel are constantly testing for traces of Salmonella or E. Coli 0157, the specific strain that gets people sick, and they would throw out entire harvests if any traces of the bacteria are detected. They produce over 30,000 pounds of lettuce on location each year.
The microbiologists manipulate aspects of seeds to produce higher quality plants and the company manages its own Seed Bank, overseen by manager Kimberly Chaps. She said that 40-50 varieties of microgreens and 20 varieties of lettuce are housed in the bank and available for use by local growers.
Like other urban farms, the crop was in stacked planters which uses 85 percent less water than traditional farming methods, said Winrow, and without stacking the planters they would need 12 times more land to grow the same amount of crop.
Selovita recently underwent a series of evaluations to be certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to receive approval for the European Global G.A.P. Certification, seen as one of the most difficult to obtain in the world.
Besides growing lettuce and microgreens, Selovita also raises tilapias to be sold to local restaurants and markets. And the plant and fishery programs co-exist. Waste water from the multiple tilapia tanks - hundreds of tilapia in 5,000 gallon tanks- are pumped to the growing area and used to water the crop, which is effective because the nutrients left by the fish benefit the plants.
"One of the things we are trying to do is get away from the use of fertilizer, and we found there are a lot of nutrients in this water," said Winrow.
Selovita's distribution is local but they are looking to find new ways to expand their market, especially with microgreens that tend to be used by chefs in major cities like Miami or New York. Winrow said one of their goals is to decrease the amount of time it takes for produce to travel from the facility to the dinner plate.
The company also started a non-profit called iSeedUSA, educating people from poor or marginalized communities on how to develop their own sustainable agricultural systems. They even offer "Aquaponics in a Box," complete with all of the equipment needed to start a viable project. More information can be found at iseedusa.org.
For more information on Selovita, also visit floridaurbanorganics.com.
- This article is the second in a four-part series about farms visited during the 2014 Lee County Urban Farm Tour.