Dr. James Demler never imagined that he and his wife, Kathy, would own a farm — especially one that didn’t need soil. In fact, after 30 years of treating patients throughout Sarasota, this semi-retired urologist only dreamed of one thing: helping people get healthy.
“Some things in life are serendipitous,” says Demler when asked why he and his wife, a local artist, decided to open one of the largest, fully operational Verti-Gro hydroponic farms in Sarasota.
The Demlers are good friends with Tim Carpenter, who happens to be the pioneer of vertical hydroponics. Carpenter is the developer and retailer of Verti-Gro and the one who piqued Demler’s curiosity about the many benefits of this method. Demler knew that helping people get healthier meant not only getting them to eat more fresh foods but also included offering them the most nutrient-dense produce available. He realized that hydroponics and his friendship with Carpenter could bring it all together. On Feb. 14, the exclusively hydroponic Sweetgrass Farms was born.
The couple bought what was likely considered an unusable six acres of land at 8350 Carolina St., off University Parkway and east of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, to house their farm.
“The land had become an illegal dumping ground for people looking to get rid of old boats and large scrap items,” says Demler. “I didn’t want to clean it up and then build condos or another business plaza; I wanted to use the land in a way that would feed my soul.”
The simplest definition of hydroponics is growing without soil and with a completely balanced liquid feed system. The plants are grown in an inert growing medium instead of soil (Sweetgrass Farms uses ground coconut fiber) and then the nutrient solution is delivered to the roots in a highly soluble form. This allows the plant to take its food with little effort as opposed to soil, in which the roots must search out the nutrients and extract them. This is true even when using rich, organic soil and top-of-the-line nutrients. The energy the plant expends in the “searching” process is energy that could be spent on vegetative growth and production.
To be successful, growers must supply all 16 macro and micro elements the plant requires, in the proper amounts, as well as sunlight, water and fresh air. The plants are growing using a hydroponic growing system that uses vertical towers and insulated stackable pots that rotate for maximum-efficiency hydroponic farming in a limited space. The system has little to no water waste because the nutrient solution drainage from each pot is released into the pot below and continues to be used by each plant stacked in the vertical tower. Because of the efficient system, Sweetgrass Farms is currently able to grow 35,000 plants, including three types of bell pepper, tomato, corn, two varieties of hot pepper, cucumber, green beans, radish, beet, eggplant, strawberries, five types of lettuce and several herbs, and it has plans for additional produce this fall.
The farm, which Demler and his wife own, currently employees six people — four who maintain the farm, one who runs it and one who is responsible for the marketing, public relations, sales and distribution — and has earned the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Fresh From Florida accreditation. If you give a plant exactly what it needs, when it needs it, the plant will be as healthy as is genetically possible, Demler says. In fact, there are no genetically modified seeds, harmful chemicals or pesticides used in the growing of Sweetgrass Farm’s hydroponic plants.
Sweetgrass Farms has begun making its entrance into the community by offering a weekly buying club where customers stop by to pick up a pre-ordered Harvest Box that provides an assortment of the farm’s freshest produce. Within the coming weeks it plans to have an educational booth located at the downtown Sarasota Farmers Market and a roadside produce stand open on weekends at the south end of its property. There are also plans to open a u-pick strawberry operation at the farm, beginning in late fall.
The farm was also involved with University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee for the Maison Blanche Farm to Fork Event earlier this week. The event, put on by USFSM Culinary Innovation Lab, focused on educating the general public on local, sustainable food options and brought participants out to tour and dine at Sweetgrass Farms and Gamble Creek Farm.
“Kathy and I have to two goals in mind,” says Demler. “We not only want to help provide people with the healthiest type of food possible, but we also want to be a learning and research center that educates about healthy eating and the risks associated with the dangerous chemicals used in traditional commercial farming. Opening a hydroponic farm whose mission includes engaging and involving our community was the perfect answer.”
RECIPE: Sweetgrass Farms fiesta corn
Serves 4 to 5
(All of the fresh ingredients can be acquired at Sweetgrass Farms.)
3 ears fresh corn (Cut the corn from the cob and set aside.)
1 large or 2 medium tomatoes (diced)
½ cup fresh cilantro (finely chopped and equally divided into two ¼-cup portions)
¼ cup fresh chives (chopped)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large sauté pan heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat.
Add the fresh corn and sauté for 3 minutes, stirring continuously.
Add the diced tomato, ¼ cup cilantro, 2 teaspoons ground cumin and a dash of salt and pepper, and continue to cook for 5 additional minutes (or until most of the liquid from the tomato has evaporated), stirring occasionally.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the additional ¼ cup of cilantro and the ¼ cup of freshly chopped chives. Serve hot as a side dish or transfer to a container and refrigerate to use as a cold salad topping.
IF YOU GO
Where: 8350 Carolina St.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday