Superfood meets superman: Why and how moringa grows in Tampa Bay Area

A chance meeting at Home Depot? Ken Black doesn’t think so. 

A flooring specialist, Black met an African missionary at the store one fateful day seven years ago. The missionary, whose name he never kept, told him about the superfood moringa growing in impoverished areas of the world. Three weeks later, when the missionary returned, his wife gave Black a seed she had in her purse. 

Black planted it.

After that, the word got out: He was interested in the soft-wooded tree. Someone he didn’t even know gave him 84 seeds; the missionary gave him another 2,000. 

So he planted those too, after his orange trees died of citrus greening.

Since then, Black's life has changed dramatically. Friends and neighbors now call him ''Moringa Man,'' and his Carrollwood back yard a ''moringa forest.''

His enthusiasm for the tree, which the 67-year-old believes can help feed the world, also has resulted in an ongoing research project at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where it is being tested as a biofuel with positive results. It also is to be tested at a University of Florida grow site in Wimauma. 

“I’ve taken it from one seed to now,” he says. “With the results we have at this point it’s opening up a whole new avenue.”

That single seed has blossomed into a global plan for a training center where people from around the world can learn sustainable living practices -- and how to use moringa to break the cycle of poverty. 

Finding the right site will be a priority when friends Mike and Deb Gilbert, who currently are in Uganda, arrive here in the fall.

“We’re looking for 30 to 50 acres to set this training up next spring,” says Black, who is targeting Wimauma for the project called Ranch for Life, by One City Ministries of Lutz.          

It will include a home for high-functioning adults with disabilities who can learn job skills while they work on the ranch. Classes on sustainability would be offered there for a fee to fund operations.

The backstory

In areas like Uganda and Haiti, people can spend a lot of time collecting firewood to cook. As they use up the wood near their village, they have to travel farther and farther from their homes to gather it. That’s one reason they are poor: they have to spend a lot of time finding firewood, Black says.

Moringa will be a big help, according to Black. Not only is it a fast-growing tree, but it can be eaten in a salad, cooked with vegetables, or consumed as a tea. It can be cooked like you cook spinach, in an omelet or steamed.

“Raw is always best,” he says. “In a green salad works best.”

It grows in virtually the same areas of the world where poverty is most common, in tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa, and South America, according to Trees of Life International, a Wichita, KS-based organization working to end poverty by inspiring and empowering people to solve their problems.

“He [God] put the answer [to poverty] right there in front of us. My people die for lack of knowledge,” Black says, referring to a Bible verse in Hosea.

The moringa -- also known as the drumstick, miracle or horseradish tree -- has been gaining in notoriety. It was named “Botanical of the Year” in 2008 by the National Institutes of Health. It also has been studied by organizations like John Hopkins School of Medicine. An article in the Trees for Life Journal notes “moringa appears to be a nutritional and medicinal cornucopia,” but reports of medical benefits haven’t been scientifically proven.

WebMD says moringa is “possibly safe,” when its leaves, fruits and seeds are consumed as food. It cautions against eating the “root and its extracts.” “These parts of the plant may contain a toxic substance that can cause paralysis and death,” it says. It also notes the root, bark and flower might potentially cause miscarriage to pregnant women.

Efforts to introduce the tree’s benefits to those who desperately need help had a misstart, Black says. While some quit growing crops to plant moringa trees, they didn’t find a ready market. They didn’t know how to use it or promote it. 

So they gave up.

Now it’s being reintroduced as a biogas, a fertilizer, and livestock feed, which Black describes as “the back door.”

“It’s hard to get people to change their habits,” says Black, who sells moringa and moringa products.

Black, however, has found allies at USF.

Ken Black, aka Moringa Man, is program director at The Ranch For Life and One City Ministries.Through Black’s affiliation with Morningstar Fishermen, a Dade City-based organization teaching aquaponics to missionaries, he was able to connect with the university. Morningstar Fishermen had been doing research at USF on fish waste in biodigesters. After a gathering Black attended, he approached Sarina J. Ergas, a Professor in the Engineering College’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and offered to provide everything -- at no expense -- to compare the fish waste to moringa for use in biodigesters. 

She agreed, which led to impressive results: moringa produced methane gas in eight days when everything else took four to six weeks.

They continued the research, escalating the size of the biodigesters from one-liter bottles to five-gallon containers. Into the third year, he was invited to meet with T. H. Culhane, a faculty member at USF’s Patel College of Global Sustainability. In a twist of fate, Black had discovered a biodigester design Culhane had shared online while he was living in Egypt.

When Culhane visited and saw an altered version of his biogester in Black’s back yard, he recognized the design right away. Black had done just what Culhane had hoped people would do: He had incorporated some of his own ideas into the design. 

From there, the cooperation blossomed.

“Students worked with him and built a couple of digesters in his backyard moringa forest,” says Culhane, Director of the Patel College Climate Change concentration.

Using the new 275-gallon biodigesters, Black compared two varieties of moringa -- and came up with an 83.7 percent rate of methane production in December. 

Manures usually produce 65 to 70 percent; it’s the standard used to judge other sources.

“Moringa blows that away. That’s a huge huge impact,” Black says. “They told me, going into the study, if I got 50 percent that would be doing good.”

After that, the trees took a hit with the January cold. “The trees don’t really do much until the temperatures get up to into the 90s in the day and stay in the 70s at night,” Black explains. “While it didn’t kill them, they were stunned.”

Living off the grid

The moringa/biofuel effort is part of a green-faith movement working with people of different faiths who are being stewards of God’s creation, Culhane says. 

Ultimately, he believes there’s a lot that can be accomplished with moringa. In addition to feeding the hungry, it can clean wastewater and remediate soils, he points out. 

It also can produce biomass that can be fed to biodigesters to improve their methane yield, he says.

For Culhane, moringa is just part of living a sustainable lifestyle. He lives off the grid, but not in a log cabin lit by candles.

Powered by solar energy, biogas and occasionally propane, Culhane’s home is a fifth-wheel, two-bedroom RV trailer equipped with a microwave, dishwasher, washing machine and a hot water system. He also runs two big-screen TVs, an Xbox 360 and Xbox One, an electric guitar, a computer, and fans.

Culhane doesn’t have air conditioning -- yet -- because he prefers to use his existing, stored energy on other things.

“By next year, I should be able to chill the place completely down. If I wanted to, I could turn it on for an hour or two a day,” explains Culhane. “I haven’t had a need.”

He’s got several reasons to live off the grid, among them being self-sufficient even when a hurricane like Irma knocks out power in his Land O’Lakes neighborhood. The cost factor helps: Solar panels are dropping in price, unlike electricity.

“I have always wanted to be 'the change,' like Mahatma Gandi says,” says Culhane, who holds a doctorate in Urban Planning from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Another reason is to inspire his students. He doesn’t want to “ring hollow,” adds Culhane, Co-Director of the not-for-profit Solar CITIES, an educational corporation.

“I was tired of waking up in the morning, feeling like I was more part of the problem than the solution,” he explains.

Culhane is growing eight moringa trees Black gave him. They are trying to grow more on the property, along with a “food forest” including bananas and papayas.

“It’s a community effort,” he adds. “It’s a place for USF students to do research.”

In the community

Through the years, more people have been learning about moringa. Visitors to the Temple Terrace Farmers Market adjacent to City Hall can become acquainted through Kendrick T. Henry, who sells moringa products on Saturdays.

Henry, who holds a master’s of Architecture degree from USF, was making money from vending machines while in school. But he became disenchanted with that business and wanted to help people and society. So he turned his attention to self-sustainable farms. 

When Henry learned about moringa in 2013, he founded Numa Nursery. He recently opened Numa Nursery Farm Store at 7830 38th Ave. N., Unit 1, St. Petersburg, where he is open from noon to 8 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 

During the summer, he’s at Hyde Park Farmer's Market from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the first Sunday and at The Seminole Heights farmers market at Southern Winemaking and Brewing from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the second Sunday.

“I’m a farmer. I’m also a designer and architect,” says the 31-year-old. “I design and build farms and self-sustainable communities.”

Today he manages thousands of moringa trees on at least 100 acres in the Tampa Bay area. “We share and we give back to each other and provide sustenance through the abundance of moringa,” he says.

He gives talks about moringa at libraries, civic centers and educational facilities. “Every time I go there someone says ‘I have some land. Would you like to grow moringa on my property?’ I say, ‘Yes, we would love to.’ ”

Through the Moringa Grower’s Co-Op, coordinated by Henry in Hillsborough and Bradley Yager in Pinellas County, they provide free care and maintenance for the trees. “In return, we actually give them product that we make from the moringa tree,” he says.

Those products, which include loose leaves, a tea blend, extract, powder, deodorant, spice and seed oil, are sold through the nursery.

Henry describes moringa as a food source that is “very low maintenance” and “highly nutritious.” “It provides sustenance for malnourished, developing countries and is literally a source of economic stimulation,” he says.

Who is moringa for? “Moringa is for everyone,” he replies.

An antioxidant, moringa is high in Vitamin C and acts as an anti-inflammatory, he says. When its seeds are pressed, they release an oil used for the skin, hair and nails.

Darrel Hunt, co-owner of Cheyenne’s Country Thangs in Lutz, which sells organic foods, says moringa helped him wean off blood pressure and cholesterol medicine in six months. He suffered a heart attack in November 2014; after that, his wife Lisa discovered moringa.

“I’ve been eating it raw for two years,” says Hunt, who grows the trees and sells moringa powder. “I feel healthier than I have been for a long, long time. I attribute it to the moringa.”

The 58-year-old, who eats it every morning with his coffee, credits moringa for higher energy levels. “Without that, I couldn’t go as hard as I have to go every day,” he says.

Beyond its value as a food source, moringa is a soil builder and enhancer, Henry says, explaining it can improve depleted, sandy soil over time.

Fast growing, the moringa can grow a foot in a week. He likes to maintain them as bushes so they are easier to harvest.

What's next?

USF students are running with the sustainable effort. They have continued to build biodigesters -- at the USF Botanical Gardens, the USF Hillel Jewish community, at the nearby Museum of Science and Industry, at the Faith Lutheran Evangelical Church and other places.

Culhane has applied for green energy funds to study how to improve fuel production in biodigesters, which can “go to sleep” after a cold snap, he says. They want to discover the best temperature to keep it at, so it will be the most efficient.

Previous studies assessed feasibility. “Now we have to get into the rigorous data collection for optimization,” he says.

In the meantime, people already are using small biodigesters all over the world to create methane that power grills from food scraps. Black puts moringa in his.

Culhane has plans posted online. For those who don’t want to build their own, they can be purchased at places like HomeBiogas.

Restaurants are enjoying the advantages of turning food scraps into a fuel source -- or making plans to. Beef O’ Brady’s in Land O’Lakes already is using three of them. And USF is looking for a larger site to build a biodigester that could fuel the university’s maintenance vehicles using food waste.

Black is following through with plans in hope moringa may eventually be a cash crop for Florida farms, at a time when citrus greening has taken a major toll. Like he did, growers someday may use land previously dedicated to citrus for moringa, he says.

“This can be the crop they’ve been looking for,” he points out.
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune