First urban hydroponic container farm opens in St. Pete

Shannon O’Malley and Brad Doyle represent the new face of St. Petersburg: young, creative, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial.

On 1/3-acre of land in the city’s Warehouse Arts District, the couple grow organic, artisan greens prized by high-end restaurants like Marchand’s Bar and Grill at the Renaissance Vinoy, Stillwaters Tavern and Bella Brava.

Brick Street Farms is just blocks away from the city’s growing collection of craft beer breweries, artist studios, wood-working shops and assorted small factories. The pop-up vintage market, Brocante, is around the corner, and so is the local headquarters for Pedal Pub. Behind them is a towing company with a large marine-life mural on the outside wall.

If it seems like an odd location for growing produce, that’s because this is not your typical small farm or community garden. And O’Malley and Doyle are not your typical farmers.  

High-tech growing

The husband-and-wife team are techies. Doyle is a software engineering specialist and an IT Project Delivery Lead at Duke Energy. O’Malley’s background is in engineering. She was a senior project manager at Duke Energy until leaving her job in early March to manage the farm full-time.

Brick Street Farms doesn’t have to worry about Florida’s heat and humidity, the relentless bugs or the sandy soil often lacking in nutrients that plants need to grow. In fact, seasons are not an issue at all. That’s because the plants are grown inside specially climate controlled shipping containers that the couple ordered and had retrofitted to suit their needs.

Step inside a container and the air smells fresh and clean, almost “green” with the distinctive aroma of greens and fresh herbs. There’s an über-chill, meditative quality to the environment. Russian kale, purple Pac Choy, Asian greens, rainbow chard and about 10 varieties of heirloom lettuce are growing, not in soil but in rows of vertical hydroponic towers along both sides of the container.  

“This is a business; we are a plant factory,” says O’Malley. “We are filling a demand. The city is in dire need of fresh, locally grown produce.”

Everything is very scientific and specially controlled by an app on O’Malley’s phone or an iPad. She calls it cloud farming. Every 60 seconds, everything is automatically adjusted as needed around the clock. 

“The technology is proprietary and expensive,” says O’Malley.

Red and blue LED light strips hang between the vertical towers. (Plants only absorb the red and blue spectrum, says O’Malley). The LED lights also don’t generate heat, and they reduce energy waste and are more efficient for the plants, she says.

“Hydroponic gardening is not new, we didn’t invent anything,” says O’Malley. “We just figured out how to scale it down and modify it for a small space. Each container is its own environment.”

The containers are airtight and air-conditioned. A propane tank on the outside supplies a steady source of carbon dioxide that plants need. A fan provides the wind that plants need to breathe. 

Water use is minimal and all of it is recycled. “We use about 15 gallons of water per day per container, less than the average household,” says O’Malley. “We don’t use chemicals or herbicides and here is no run-off or pollution.”

Water temperature and pH, as well as temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels are measured through sensors, according to the Brick Street Farms website.

O’Malley orders non-GMO, heirloom varieties of seeds, unique varieties that she says you can’t find at produce stands or grocery stores. The seeds are germinated in the “baby greens nursery” section of the container. When they sprout and they’re big enough, O’Malley transfers them to the eight-foot vertical towers, which allows a high concentration of plants to grow in a small space.

A plan for the future

Brick Street Farms currently has three containers sitting side by side in one corner of the property. The couple are working with the City of St. Petersburg to get permission to add three more, which they would stack on top of the existing containers. Their long-term goal is 12 containers.

They’ve packed a lot into a small space. “We grow two acres of produce per month per container or about six acres of produce total per month,” says O’Malley. “That’s year-round.”

Currently, the couple have seven local restaurants as customers, with more contracts expected in the near future.  So far, the Renaissance Vinoy is their biggest client. “We make an exclusive blend just for them,” says O’Malley.

Individuals can also buy produce. The couple advertise what’s available on their website; then it’s first come, first served with pick-up on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Modern-day farmers?

What prompted two techies to pursue the idea of an urban container farm? O’Malley says she grew up gardening in Pennsylvania and when she came to Florida 10 years ago, she was frustrated by her early attempts to grow anything here.

“The summer heat and constant pests were a challenge and everything would die,” says O’Malley. She ordered a hydroponic tower and put it in the shade in the backyard and then in the garage, but it didn’t fare much better.

Not to be deterred, she decided to research what was available related to hydroponic gardening. “We just decided to take it to the next level,” says O’Malley.

They bought containers from the Port of Boston and worked with a manufacturer in Massachusetts to do an “extreme build-out retrofit.”

Scouting locations in St. Petersburg, they found an abandoned junkyard that had no water or electricity. The roof was caved in on the small building on the property.  Old fiberglass boats, shredded tires and wood pallets covered the ground. 

“It was an old industrial site that the owner had basically left untouched for 30 years or more,” says O’Malley. “Truthfully, it was the only property we could afford. And we completely underestimated the cost of fixing it up.”

They added water and power, redid the building inside and out and cleared numerous hurdles, including an environmental inspection of the land. The containers arrived and then they cleared a small outdoor space for potted plants, outdoor sofas and tables. Wrought iron lamps hang from one section of fencing.

“We’re still at the infancy of the business,” says O’Malley. In addition to acquiring more growing containers, the couple hope to take the northeast section of the property and turn it into a permanent covered outdoor event space for private parties. They anticipate adding additional retrofitted containers, including one converted into a chef’s kitchen. Eventually they’d like to live on top on an urban apartment.

“There is such a growing food culture here and a desire to keep things local,” says O’Malley. “The city is really embracing us.”

So have area chefs. Brick Street Farms has been partnering with area restaurants and chefs to create onsite pop-up dinners, including one with Stillwater Tavern’s chef Jeffrey Jew that will take place March 29th, just two days after the farm’s official ribbon-cutting with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on March 27th.
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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.