The Villages Grown Expands Cultivation
Nutrition never tasted so good. As March marks the observance of National Nutrition Month, The Villages Grown, The Villages’ farm-to-table initiative, is touting new production expansions and partnerships that will expand the presence of its nutrient-dense produce. Scaled-up production at The Villages Grown’s farm includes full production of its vertical greenhouse for microgreens, as well as three new types of lettuce that garner vitamins and nutrients, said Jennifer Waxman, The Villages Grown’s executive director. The Villages Grown recently entered more hospitals and is working with school districts and assisted living facilities to distribute more of its products to those organizations, she said.
“We’ve made custom blends of microgreens for hospitals for people with cardiovascular issues,” Waxman said.
The initiative’s retail store at Brownwood Paddock Square remains busy, while its mobile market is undergoing maintenance to support larger crowds.
These are signs that demand is increasing for the freshest, most nutritious and most locally sourced food possible, Waxman said.
“Production has picked up and large food service and retail grocer players are coming to us as their year-round, nutrient-dense supply chain solution during these desperate times of need for continuous nutrients at an affordable price,” Waxman said.
The Villages Grown is unique among food systems as both a grower and a reseller of agricultural products.
In addition to crops grown by its own farmers, it has partnerships with a network of about 17 local farms and 26 local artisans that supplement their harvests with seasonal crops and locally made agricultural products like honey, olive oil and tea.
Part of the reason for crops’ nutrient density is owed to agricultural technology.
Farming takes place in its controlled environment greenhouses, located on 45 acres at the southwest corner of Morse Boulevard and State Road 44. Growers use vertical hydroponics — a process that uses vertically stacked towers to plant and grow more crops on less land — to grow crops.
The Villages Grown operates a nutrient tank system that sends a recipe of nutrients from a tank in a utility room through a drip irrigation system, Wright said. It’s from this system where the nutrients reach the plants.
The climate-controlled nature of hydroponic growing supports nutrition in part by preventing pests, diseases and extreme weather from degrading the crops, said Matt Smith, sustainable agriculture and food systems agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Sumter County Extension Office.
He noted the importance of temperature control so crops can grow despite the threat of weather that’s too hot or too cold for growing. For example, The Villages Grown chills the water that goes to the crops’ root systems.
“Cooling is really important,” Smith said. “It’s not just it gets so hot that plants can’t survive, plants also will have different optimal temperatures for when they start flowering. A tomato plant can survive temperatures in the 90s for a period of time, but it won’t flower.”
Production is increasing at these greenhouses to meet demand, particularly for microgreens, young vegetable greens picked when the first leaves are developed.
Microgreens are the only produce that is considered medicinal based on scientific research, Waxman said.
Last year, The Villages Grown listed 12 types of microgreens in its catalog: arugula, beets, broccoli, rainbow chard, kale, purple kohlrabi, mix mild, mix spicy, mizuna, mustard, radish and wasabi.
Since then, farmers began growing a handful of new microgreens, including chives, cilantro, basil and sorrel. Sorrel is a spinach-like herb known for a tangy, lemony flavor, said Adam Wright, The Villages Grown’s director of operations.
Waxman was inspired to grow microgreens at The Villages Grown because of studies from Johns Hopkins University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center that found broccoli microgreens may contain up to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts.
As more people become aware of the health benefits of microgreens, more people are growing them to meet demand.
Ian Selph started growing microgreens at his Ocala farm, Mighty Micros Farm, in May 2020. On a recent day at the Lady Lake Farmers Market, he had kale, broccoli, cauliflower, radish and red cabbage microgreens available for sale.
“This is something I heard about, and it seemed feasible,” Selph said, adding that the studies on the health benefits of microgreens inspired him.
For instance, a 2016 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a peer reviewed journal published by the American Chemical Society, found red cabbage microgreens are capable of lowering levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood.
Beyond microgreens, The Villages Grown marked other growing milestones.
Farmers are cultivating three new types of lettuce that are rich in vitamins and nutrients, as well as taste, Waxman said.
“This is something that typical lettuces you get at the store generally lack as they are mainly composed of water,” she said.
Waxman and Wright both noted improvements to the nutrient density of their tomatoes, which currently have a Brix reading of 7 and are close to reaching 8. Brix readings measure a tomato’s sugar levels and can be an indicator of the fruit’s quality, with a higher number meaning better flavor and quality, Wright said.
“You’re getting higher nutritional value,” Wright said. “You’ll get the flavor, the color, the textures.”
Such a high reading is unheard of for a Florida-grown, hydroponic tomato and proves optimal nutrition as well as taste and sweetness, Waxman said.
Wright added that tomatoes are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that helps people who have chronic conditions. Research shows lycopene may reduce the risk of cancer and heart problems, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Overall, Villagers can continue to expect the most nutritious food possible from The Villages Grown, Waxman said.
“A cup of microgreens a day keeps the doctor away,” she said.