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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 8 years ago

Bet the farm

A group of entrepreneurs are creating an urban farm with the idea of feeding the world's hungry. First, they have to turn a profit.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Unless you need concrete block or gravel, you really have no business driving around in the Fort Myers industrial zone north of Colonial Boulevard off Metro Parkway.

It's not the kind of place where you'd want your car to break down at night. Dump trucks rumble down crumbling roads lined with empty lots and warehouses ringed with high fences, some with barbed wire.

But there's a farm there — a real farm — one called Selovita where 26 employees grow 35,000 pounds of organic vegetables and cultivate 42,000 fish in a dozen giant ponds that look like above-ground swimming pools.

The man behind this unlikely experiment in urban farming is Gary Winrow, a retired executive with The Mariner Group, which has built more than 2,000 homes and condos on Sanibel and Captiva islands.

Winrow, an imposing man who captained the Wake Forest Demon Deacons football team to an ACC championship in 1970, certainly doesn't come across as a starry-eyed, feed-the-world type. But the hard-nosed construction executive is genuinely concerned about global famine, and he's putting his years of construction experience to work for a solution. “There's a passion side of what we do,” he says.

In fact, Winrow started the endeavor as a nonprofit called iSeed USA and says he sought to raise $6 million. But donors were skeptical. “We tried to sell the iSeed thing first, but we couldn't raise the money,” Winrow recalls. “They said: Prove it first.”

So he formed a company called Selovita, an umbrella for a for-profit operation, Florida Urban Organics, and the nonprofit iSeed. Once the company is profitable, some of those gains will flow to the nonprofit.

Winrow has raised an undisclosed sum from private investors, mostly local entrepreneurs. “No one really said no,” says Winrow, who pitches the idea to groups of investors several times a month.

To build the farm, Winrow has recruited a team of experts that includes Jorge Pang, who built shrimp farms in remote locations of Central America for Ralston Purina. “This works because I've seen it happen,” says Pang.

Farm in a box
Winrow's vision is to create a farming kit that could be set up virtually anywhere in the world to sustain a family or small village. With water and minimal power, a small group of people could cultivate vegetables and tilapia fish.

“How do you feed a village of 100 people?” he wondered. Some organizations that help feed people in poor countries suggested creating a kit on an even smaller scale for a family to prevent a despotic government from taking it. “No one's doing it on that scale,” Winrow says.

Growing vegetables and farming fish are complementary because fish wastewater can be used to fertilize the plants organically. A drip system connects the fish pools with vegetables grown vertically in baskets attached to poles. What Winrow, Pang and the team of experts are developing is an Ikea-like kit that could be built easily and delivered for a reasonable price.

Winrow declines to discuss the cost of the project or what such a system might cost because the team is still working on the system. “We've got a lot to prove and a lot of things to do,” he says, noting that he intends to patent the process.

“In six months you'll see some real improvements,” Winrow promises. He says he hopes to install five systems this year and later license the technology. Customers could include non-government agencies that help feed hungry people anywhere in the world, for example.

The Fort Myers farm, where construction started in March, would become the educational campus in addition to a research-and-development facility. Winrow says that is where people will come to learn how to assemble and operate the equipment and scientists can improve the idea.

Each part of the operation should be profitable as a stand-alone business, Winrow says. “Growing tilapia can be a money-making event,” he says. Already, the company is supplying leafy vegetables to Ada's Natural Market in Fort Myers.

Currently, the company has a dozen 54,000-gallon pools, each stocked with 3,500 tilapia fish. Stocked in September, they'll take about a year to reach the pound-and-a-half size to be ready for sale.

Nearby, the 5,000-square-foot warehouse on the four-acre campus contains a packing facility, a scientific lab and a room where the organization grows microgreens, the baby versions of leafy vegetables that command high prices at restaurants.

Building the team
When Winrow tried to raise money for the iSeed nonprofit, it was a novel idea that hadn't been tested. Such a system would have to be designed from scratch.

Winrow got the idea after exploring another plan to build housing in Angola, a country in southern Africa that has been torn by decades of civil war. “What we really need is food,” they told him.

Fortunately, Pang was working at Royal Tila, a tilapia fish farm in Punta Gorda when Winrow met him. “I found someone almost in my backyard,” Winrow says.

Together, Winrow and Pang plotted the Selovita project for about a year, running through the financials of such an endeavor. “We'd meet at Target for coffee every night,” Winrow says.

Pang says the challenge wasn't technological. After all, he's designed aquaculture farms in much more challenging conditions in Central America. “The challenge is marketing,” says Pang, who has worked for farms that failed in the face of competition.

“You're competing against the world,” he says, citing shrimp from Asia as an example. “People forget that it's a farm. It's 24/7. It's nonstop,” Pang says. “You need to understand the economics and the marketing.”

Pang's experience is with large commercial operations, but he shares Winrow's vision of feeding hungry people in less fortunate areas. “It is satisfying, and that's why I jumped on board,” he says.

Pang has seen it work first hand. He supplied shrimp farms that were established in remote areas of Central America, providing needed jobs and commerce for local people. “In some locations there was no electricity, they had to use their own power generation,” he says. “It's very possible to do this.”

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