The Villages Grown Cultivates Fresh, Local Food

The Villages Grown as seen from a drone at 160 feet on June 5, 2020.

These aren’t the types of vegetables your parents nagged you about finishing when you grew up. Produce harvested by The Villages Grown, The Villages’ farm-to-table initiative, packs a strong flavor that’s owed to its freshness. “So many people have said they don’t like vegetables,” said Jennifer Waxman, The Villages Grown’s executive director. “We convert them, because they’ve never had a real vegetable.” And it’s healthy, too. The Villages Grown grows its produce with peak nutrition in mind, striving to get food out to the community within two to 48 hours of harvest so people reap the highest vitamin and nutrient benefits, Waxman said. “We’re giving the plant everything it physiologically needs to help it grow faster,” she said. “We’re striving for nutrient-dense.” This system is based on a philosophy of food as medicine and a belief that people should have access to good, nutritious food at prices that aren’t outrageous, she said.

A growing operation unlike any other

The Villages Grown way involves a hyperlocal system designed with the freshest, most nutritious and most locally sourced food possible, Waxman said.

The operation is unique among food systems because it is both a grower and a reseller of agricultural products, she said.

In addition to crops grown by its own farmers, it has partnerships with a network of 17 local farms and 26 local artisans that supplement their harvests with seasonal crops and locally made agricultural products like honey, olive oil and tea.

The Villages Grown’s own farming takes place in its controlled environment greenhouses, located on 45 acres at the southwest corner of Morse Boulevard and State Road 44.

Cultivating this produce involves farmers using vertical hydroponics, a process that uses vertically stacked towers to plant and grow more crops on less land. Hydroponics is a style of growing that does not use soil.

Doing this maximizes the amount of space farmers have to grow, while also keeping the operation’s carbon footprint as low as possible, Waxman said.

While establishing a hydroponics system is costly, the likely results — better crop yields and more frequent harvests — are well worth it, said Matt Smith, a multi-county sustainable agriculture and food systems agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Smith’s territory includes Sumter County.

It’s also efficient in delivering nutrients to plants and maximizing the amount of oxygen that reaches the roots, he said.

“We’re able to very efficiently deliver nutrients to the plants and maximize the amount of oxygen that gets to the root, especially the ones with no soil media at all. You just have the plants with the tips of the roots going into the water.”

Hydroponics is common in greenhouse settings like those at The Villages Grown because they’re climate-controlled and allow for year-round production, Smith said.

For example, the recirculation of air in a greenhouse using a system of fans is effective in reducing heat in the summer months, he said. This is important because certain crops, like tomatoes, can’t flower when it’s too hot.

While The Villages Grown’s greenhouses are a controlled environment, Waxman tries to emulate crops growing in the natural world.

One way she does this is by keeping bees in greenhouses where plants that depend on pollination are grown.

On the outside of The Villages Grown property are more beehives that come from Scott Irving of Lake Panasoffkee-based Riverview Apiaries. Irving, who raises bees for honey production, is one of The Villages Grown’s local artisans and a vendor at the Brownwood Farmers Market.

Waxman said The Villages Grown is about three years ahead of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a series of rules and regulations that govern U.S. food production.

It also exceeds the standards of GLOBALG.A.P. certification, the highest standard of accreditation for an agricultural producer, Waxman said. The Villages Grown expects to receive this certification next month.

All produce grown on the farm is chemical-free and pesticide-free, Waxman said.

That exceeds the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for labeling as an organic product, because organic does not mean chemical-free, she said.

“We use no chemicals in a clean technology environment that hasn’t been adulterated by animals, human or weather,” Waxman said. “It’s pure, clean agriculture.”

What Villagers can expect

The Villages Grown is now growing 74 unique crops including lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and microgreens, young vegetable greens picked when the first leaves are developed.

Microgreens are valued for their high nutritional content, Waxman said.

She cited studies from Johns Hopkins University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center that found some microgreens, such as broccoli microgreens, may contain up to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts.

“Our goal is to get every Villager to eat one cup of microgreens every day,” she said.

The Villages Grown has 12 types of microgreens in its catalog: arugula, beets, broccoli, rainbow chard, kale, purple kohlrabi, mix mild, mix spicy, mizuna, mustard, radish and wasabi.

Farmers recently added sugar snap peas, crystal lettuce, watermelon radishes, popcorn shoots and pea shoots to their catalog. (Shoots are like microgreens, but grow thicker. Waxman compared their texture to mung beans.)

The path that crops take before they reach a customer’s plate is simple: After they’re grown, they’re harvested, packed and then delivered.

Most crops will end up at either The Villages Grown’s retail store in Brownwood Paddock Square or its mobile market, an Airstream trailer outfitted to travel to different parts of The Villages to sell produce directly to residents.

The Villages Grown’s Brownwood retail store not only includes food from its own farm, but also seasonal produce and agricultural products from the local farm and artisan partners. Participating farms are within a 100-mile radius of The Villages and participating artisans are within a 150-mile radius, Waxman said.

The mobile market stops at common areas on a rotating basis throughout the community every Monday through Friday, including golf courses and the Spanish Springs and Lake Sumter Landing town centers.

The COVID-19 pandemic motivated some Villagers and area residents to buy their produce from The Villages Grown’s retail store or mobile market instead of supermarkets.

Aside from supporting local agriculture, they also wished to avoid large, crowded spaces to get their produce.

“I wasn’t going to any supermarkets, so I thought I’d come here,” Ruth Weil, of the Village of Duval, said while browsing the Brownwood retail store. “It was wonderful.”

What she likes the most from the retail store are the white cucumbers, sweet potatoes and broccoli microgreens. Sometimes, she can find good tomatoes there.

“I just like a real, home-grown tomato,” Weil said.

Community benefits

By its nature, a community food system like The Villages Grown supports a community through increased access to locally grown, nutritious food.

Nine restaurants in and around The Villages are using produce from The Villages Grown, including Palmer Legends Country Club, Lazy Mac’s Taco Shack and Fenney Grill. Waxman expects more restaurants to participate when The Villages Grown expands its crop production in August.

The Villages Grown also is working in partnership with four hospital and medical networks: UF Health Central Florida, The Villages Health, Orlando Health Hospitals and AVI Food Systems.

Partnerships with local farms and artisans benefit the community by supporting Central Florida’s agriculture industry.

Getting involved with The Villages Grown proved helpful to Byron White of Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co., a New Smyrna Beach-based business that sells tea made from the leaves of the Florida native yaupon holly plant.

Currently, the retail store carries five different varieties of Yaupon Brothers tea and three seasonal offerings, he said.

What attracted White to The Villages Grown was its commitment to sustainable agriculture, a value his business embodies through making products with Florida native plants and promoting organic and regenerative agriculture.

“We’re very happy to be aligned with them,” he said.

Another farm in The Villages Grown’s network, Long and Scott Farms in Zellwood, distributes a variety of crops that include cucumbers, cabbage, kale, okra, green beans, collard greens, and its famous sweet corn.

Sourcing produce as local as possible allows customers to know where their food comes from, something that’s possible when they support The Villages Grown, said Hank Scott, co-owner of the farm.

“I think people, especially nowadays, are concerned about how food is being grown and how it’s being treated, and realize locally grown stuff is fresher,” he said.

Ocoee-based Lake Meadow Naturals harvests eggs from the farm’s flock of heritage breed chickens, ducks and guinea hens. The eggs, along with pickled and preserved goods made on its site, are sold at The Villages Grown’s retail store.

Farmer Dale Volkert grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin before moving to Florida to pursue a career in sales and marketing. He returned to farm life when he opened Lake Meadows in 2002, a year after purchasing the land there.

What interested him about starting a farm was knowing where his food was coming from, especially in a time when demand for clean and fresh food was increasing.

“The farm-to-table movement was starting and people were paying more attention to the labels,” Volkert said. “I’m a low ingredient person. I don’t like adding ingredients with words you can’t pronounce.”

That comfort of knowing the food is clean and locally made is apparent at The Villages Grown, he said.

“I think they’ve done a wonderful job creating that greenhouse year-round,” he said. “We’re a supporter of Florida agriculture, and I feel they wanted to carry other small producers.”

Typically, small farmers don’t produce crops at a high-enough volume to enter the wholesale market so they can sell to large buyers like supermarkets, said Smith, the UF/IFAS agent.

But The Villages Grown’s embrace of the products of small farms gives them an additional outlet beyond farm and farmers market settings to sell what they have to offer, helping keep them in business, he said.

That, as well as The Villages Grown’s own farming, serve a double purpose for consumers in enabling access to local food.

“It’s a great way for local Sumter county residents to enjoy locally produced Sumter County produce,” Smith said.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.