Saturday, January 8, 2011

On the cover of Florida Grower!

Robert Tornello's 3 Boys Farm was the cover story of the December 2010 issue of Florida Grower magazine (a popular trade periodical serving the produce industry). From the accompanying article:

When arable land is scarce and climate is a challenge, growing food becomes threatened — if not impossible. That’s why countries like Israel and Japan have become pioneers growing crops under protected structures like greenhouses.

In Florida, during the summer months, fresh produce production pretty much shuts down. But, in the greenhouses of 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin, winter greens flourish while the heat of summer sizzles outside. Robert Tornello, 3 Boys owner, has channeled his passion, ingenuity, and knowledge gained by studying other greenhouse pioneers into establishing an operation that could be a model future farm.

The project, which started two years ago, combines old and new to produce hydroponic crops with an eye toward conservation and energy efficiency. So much so that this year, 3 Boys was among those awarded the 2010 Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Time Tested

While in some ways a visit to 3 Boys might feel like a scene out of “The Jetsons,” one of its most important tools used to conserve water dates back to ancient times. Cisterns have been used for millennia to collect rainwater, and Tornello has installed them to supplement water requirements.

The cisterns have 150,000 gallons of storage capacity, which are fed by industrial gutters that collect rainwater from the greenhouse buildings. This water, along with groundwater, is used for the greenhouse cooling pads and as the base for the nutrient-rich solution that feeds the plants. If the main well goes offline due to a weather event, the stored water alone could keep the greenhouses in operation for a minimum of three weeks.

Pristine Waters

A reverse osmosis plant is being installed at 3 Boys Farm to ensure pure waters are used as the base for carrying the nutrients of the hydroponic solution. The plant will be capable of treating 15,000 gallons per day.

“If you start with 100% pure drinking water for the crops, you are less likely to ever have water borne contamination,” says Tornello. “So we want to start out with purified neutral pH water and the plant allows us to do that. In certain crops, this also will help us lower the costs of nutrients.”

“Hydroponics is a water-intensive practice,” says Tornello. “When I bought the property here, the water permit was for 98,000 gallons per day. But, as pressures have come on, our permit is now for 42,000 gallons per day. That is when we went totally to Netafim microjet and cycle irrigation. With that change, we found we were nowhere near our permit threshold just by proper water management.”

Those adjustments and the use of cisterns have allowed Tornello to cut his draws from the aquifer by 10 million gallons annually.

Read more here.