Hyperponic farm merges agriculture with technology, innovation and philanthropy

On busy U.S. 19 in south St. Petersburg not far from the Pinellas Trail, a quarter acre of land owned by the Sacino family has been designated for an urban farm that will be high-tech, sustainable and off the grid.

Solar panels will generate power to keep the lights on at night and circulate water to the crops. A computerized system, which can be monitored from an off-site laptop, will oversee the watering process. And innovative technology will help the plants grow, not in raised beds, but in vertical crop towers.   

Entrepreneur Doug Fyvolent and veteran grower Richard Carroll, of Carroll Brothers Nursery, are partners in the new venture, which they’re calling a Hyperponic Farm.

It’s a play on words that incorporates the trendy hydroponic drip-method of growing plants.  But the two are quick to point out that the technology they’ve developed is a significant improvement on what’s currently available in the marketplace.

Carroll and Fyvolent have a patent pending on their trade-marked Hyperponic Farm CropTowers which they say can boost productivity at the farm dramatically.  

“It’s a concept derived from Epcot’s Land of the Future, but they use a spray system that could get clogged. We wanted something easier to operate,” says Carroll, whose family has operated a retail garden center in St. Petersburg since the early 1950s.  

A graduate of the agriculture program at the University of Florida, Carroll began experimenting with both hydroponics and the vertical method of growing plants a few years ago.

“Land is getting so expensive in the urban environment that growing up – vertically — is the future of farming,” he says.

Boosting The Harvest

Growing vertically can also increase yield. Instead of growing just one plant per planting hole, each crop tower is designed to hold up to 52 plants.  

“We can grow in just one-quarter acre the same amount of produce that would require traditional farmers at least an acre of land,” says Fyvolent.

The plants are grown without any soil or growing medium, just placed inside a small container, which fits securely inside a hole in the tower. The plant’s roots are exposed on the inside of the tower to a steady drip of water and nutrients controlled via the computerized system. All of the water is collected and recycled.

“We can grow a head of lettuce every 30 days and microgreens in just 10 days so we can harvest several times a month and turn over inventory quickly,” says Fyvolent.

Thumbs Up At One Million Cups

This summer, Fyvolent was a presenter at the St. Petersburg Greenhouse One Million Cups, the new launching pad for very early stage entrepreneurs who want to vet their ideas with business, gain feedback and maybe a helping hand in terms of sources for funding.

Fyvolent pitched the idea for his new Hyperponic Farm and drew considerable attention from a diverse section of the city’s movers and shakers. They liked the blend of technology, community involvement and philanthropy that the project embraces.

“We loved his idea. It works on so many levels and is the kind of project we want to shine in St. Petersburg,” says Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.   

“This is a project that showcases everything that’s right about St. Petersburg,” Steinocher adds. “It’s innovative, brings together the right mix of people, has the right mission and it’s about eating fresh locally through urban agriculture, which is near and dear to us.”

The Hyperponic Farm’s new logo has the tag line, “Fresh From St. Petersburg, Florida.”  Fyvolent and Carroll envision the farm producing some 6,000 heads of produce, primarily lettuces and greens, every month. Microgreens and strawberries are among crops planned for the future.  

About half of the produce will be sold to area restaurants, hotels, businesses and individuals. The rest will distributed to nonprofit agencies and food banks to help feed the needy. 

Fyvolent also hopes to involve Pinellas County Schools by providing students with fresh produce through a Farm to School lunch program. In addition, he sees potential for using the farm as a teaching-tool for students, even possibly creating mini-farms at various schools around the county. Not only would students learn about urban agriculture, but also about technology that will be used at the farm, he says.

Local Church Steps Up To Help

In another interesting twist, Fyvolent and Carroll have turned to St. Petersburg’s Community Bible Baptist Church to manage the farm as a nonprofit entity. 

“We didn’t set out to create a nonprofit venture, we designed it as a business model, but the church decided they wanted to participate in the project,” says Fyvolent.

“We see the farm providing a real benefit for the St. Petersburg community, especially those who can’t afford fresh organic produce,” says Associate Pastor Paul Hayenga. “It’s part of our mission to help our community in any way we can.”

Although a professional manager will be hired for the farm, the church will oversee the operations, with church members volunteering their time there. Donations to help build the first farm, estimated to cost about $120,000, will be tax-deductible, says Fyvolent.  Groundbreaking is expected to take place in late fall.

Securing the land for the farm was another connection Fyvolent made at One Million Cups.

Sherry Sacino was in the audience that morning and was intrigued. “It definitely motivated a conversation,” says Sacino, whose family owns the well-known Sacino Family of Companies, a formal wear chain, fine dry cleaning business and textile restoration services.  

“Our family has been in business here for 99 years and we’ve always been involved in the community,” says Sacino.  

The family’s dry cleaning production facility, located at 3430 Fairfield Avenue South, sits on an acre of land. But not all of the land was being utilized, says Sacino.

“Doug saw it and agreed that it would be perfect for the farm,” she says.

Final details are now being worked out for the Sacino family to lease ¼ acre of the land to the new Hyperponic Farm for a dollar year.

Fyvolent and Carroll will continue to be involved in the farm operations as consultants, helping ensure the success of the project. Eventually they hope to see additional farms flourish in Pinellas County – either as nonprofit ventures run by churches or social service organizations, or as a business franchise model owned by individuals.  

“The system is self-contained, uses recycled water and is completely solarized so it doesn’t rely on a particular location, terrain or power requirements,” says Fyvolent in a marketing handout he’s created for the project. “It can be replicated anywhere in the world, from urban rooftops to schools, restaurants and private homes.”

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about innovative businesses, communities and individuals that showcase the creativity, talent and diversity of Tampa Bay. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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