The Villages Grown passes on expertise

The Villages Grown assistant director of production, Rachel Skiles, checks the tomato plants to make sure everything is on track inside a greenhouse at the facility.

The intersection of agriculture and wellness is now expanding. The Villages Grown, the community’s farm-to-table initiative, is building on its relationship with the University of Florida through its agricultural, health and culinary programs. Villages Grown Executive Director Jennifer Waxman recently announced The Villages Grown became the local produce supplier for UF’s campus in Gainesville. Both The Villages Grown and UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

(UF/IFAS) are working together on research concerning controlled-environment agriculture, which involves crops growing in climate-controlled settings for the best possible growing conditions. Waxman described The Villages Grown as a leader in this practice.

She also revealed plans are in the works to train master gardener volunteers from UF/IFAS’s extension office, who would pass on expertise to residents on how to use hydroponic gardening to cultivate nutrient-dense produce.

“This is really going to help us grow the most nutrient-dense crops you can have access to, to strengthen the food as medicine approach,” Waxman said. “The partnership with UF will help extend our educational offerings with health and gardening to fulfill that thirst for knowledge that we don’t have the bandwidth for.”

Fresh and Local on Campus

The Villages Grown’s produce is now a part of the menu offerings of UF’s on-campus dining through a partnership with the university’s Gator Dining Services.

Diners may expect the full line of produce including microgreens, lettuce, herbs, tomatoes and cucumbers, Waxman said.

“It’s really bridging agriculture, culinary and health together, which is what The Villages Grown’s model was built after,” she said.

Gator Dining’s partnership with The Villages Grown builds on a food service program that already was Florida-centric.

Its other Florida suppliers include the Hilliard aquaponics facility Traders Hill Farm, Orlando milk factory T.G. Lee Dairy, Ormond Beach plant-based food producer PAOW! and Lake Mary sausage maker Nettles Sausage.

Agriculture Industry Research

The Villages Grown’s position as a leader in controlled-environment agriculture, also known by its acronym CEA, allows it to be at the forefront of research on the subject.

And that’s what’s happening now, as UF/IFAS researchers seek to learn more about the processes involved and whether it’s economically viable for large farms.

There’s a great interest in controlled-environment agriculture in the private sector, said Jeanna Mastrodicasa, UF/IFAS associate vice president of operations. That interest translates to abundant research opportunities with The Villages Grown and other CEA agribusinesses.

“I’d like to see how well it works,” she said. “We simply don’t know well enough about it, most of agriculture in Florida has been in open fields.”

The Villages Grown depends on controlled-environment greenhouses utilizing vertical hydroponics — a process that uses vertically stacked towers to plant and grow more crops on less land — to grow its line of crops.

It also operates a nutrient tank system that sends a recipe of nutrients from a tank in a utility room through a drip irrigation system, said Adam Wright, The Villages Grown’s director of operations.

Waxman described The Villages Grown as the Southeast’s largest controlled-environment agriculture operation of its kind, made possible by the diversification of its crop offerings.

“There’s a lot of large CEAs that only grow lettuce,” she said.

Expanding Education

But people don’t need large greenhouses to grow vegetables and herbs hydroponically.

That’s something Waxman thinks master gardeners could teach residents. She said she’s working with UF/IFAS on training master gardener volunteers about concepts such as hydroponic growing to cultivate nutritious food.

The commercial needs of The Villages Grown don’t allow its staff much time to teach residents about hydroponic gardening. That’s where trained volunteers would come in, Waxman said.

“We want them to be an extension of The Villages Grown and help them get info out to them on their behalf,” she said.

It’s a philosophy echoed by local UF/IFAS staff, who see trained master gardeners as an extension of themselves, on a mission of helping their communities.

“Having volunteers associated, that will be a great part of it,” said Jim Davis, extension director with the UF/IFAS Sumter County Extension Office.

It helps that involvement in the master gardener program historically has been very strong in The Villages, Mastrodicasa said.

“New people to Florida want to learn about what they can grow in Florida,” she said. “There’s so much opportunity. Just the idea you can have more than one growing season in a year is different. Most places in the country have one.”

Building a Healthier Community

The ultimate goal of The Villages Grown and UF’s expanding relationship is simple: building a healthier community.

That may mean supplying the freshest and most nutrient-rich vegetables possible, or teaching people how they can grow them themselves.

It also explains why The Villages Grown develops blends of microgreens for hospitals, for example, to help those suffering from cardiovascular issues, Waxman said.

For The Villages Grown’s staff, relationships like those with UF make it possible to cultivate nutrient-dense produce in an affordable and accessible way, Waxman said.

“You can’t be a lone ranger,” she said. “Or you’ll be out of business.”

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