Title: 2010 Ag-Environmental: 3 Boys Farm
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
High above this 10-acre farm in Ruskin, Florida, a 702 series Aermotor is hard at work harnessing the wind.
For over a hundred years, windmills like this have symbolized the self-sufficiency of the American farmer.
By integrating alternative energy sources with high- and low-tech practices, Robert Tornello of 3 Boys Farm is carrying on the tradition of ingenuity.
His operation is more than a model for the efficient, sustainable 21st century farm -- it is farming re-imagined.
Robert Tornello has never been a traditional farmer.
Early on he was taken with the beauty and versatility of bamboo and unusual palms. Working closely with theme parks and zoos around the world, he began cultivating different varieties for various animal habitats.
In order for any habitat to flourish, its design requires a number of elements to work precisely together.
It was Tornello’s attention to detail that allowed his systems to thrive, and would prove invaluable when it came time to design his hydroponic farm in Ruskin.
3 Boys Farm’s primary focus is a climate-controlled hydroponic system that grows organic herbs and vegetables 365 days a year.
It is an eclectic assemblage of old and new materials -- and old and new technology.
The imaginative Tornello has pieced together an operation that strives to draw little water from the aquifer, reduce its use of fossil fuels, and recycle as much material as possible.
Robert Tornello: “You have to be a little inventive, a little creative and sometimes go back to school and relook at things and go, how can we now incorporate the new technology with this old and still achieve the structure or the task that we want to do with it?”
The frames of the greenhouses are built from over 20 tons of recycled high-quality steel.
The roofs are made of high-tech polycarbonate, optically engineered to diffuse sunlight for uniform exposure.
The tables that support the hydroponic trays were salvaged from an old nursery.
Fifty-foot-high bamboo stands not only serve as windbreaks, they also give a home to thousands of migratory birds and augment the farm’s Integrated Pest Management system eliminating the need for pesticides.
Robert Tornello: “And that’s what we’ve been able to do here at 3 Boys. And it’s not that we save money because it really worked out to be at par, but it was doing the right thing. It was taking that old-school technology and mixing all this in again, and making it work, because it does work and it can still work.”
Nowhere is this mixing of old and new technology more evident at 3 Boys Farm than in its collection of rainwater.
While storing water in cisterns is by no means a new concept, how Tornello uses the water is.
By its very nature, hydroponic farming is water intensive.
Determined to have as little impact on the aquifer as possible, Tornello collects, stores and reuses water instead of pumping it out of the ground.
The collection begins with the massive roofs of the greenhouses.
After calculating that Ruskin’s heavy downpours would quickly overflow standard gutters, Tornello installed industrial-sized ones that would channel the rainwater into a number of large tanks.
Some rainwater is then moved to insulated, underground tanks where its temperature remains between 72 and 80 degrees, perfect for feeding the plants.
Able to store 150,000 gallons of water, these tanks could last up to three weeks during peak dry season if the main well was off line.
The hydroponic crops are grown organically from seed at 3 Boys Farm.
They are raised in a soilless media and grown in rain-gutter-like trays.
Because the roots are exposed to a constant flow of oxygen-rich water and nutrients, the introduction of any microscopic pathogen could infect an entire crop in one feeding cycle.
To prevent this, Tornello designed a closed-loop system.
After the rain is harvested, 99.99 percent of any contaminant in the water is removed with ultraviolet lighting and filters.
Then, based on the needs of the crop, nutrients are added to the water and pumped out to the greenhouses.
Robert Tornello: “We can keep the nutritional levels growing exactly to what that plant or that particular crop needs during its development and growth and maturity. And this way we can take what may normally be a 45- to maybe 80-day crop cycle and we can do it in 28 to 30 days. So you’re growing 24 hours a day under ideal conditions and there are big advantages to it. And it’s being done all over the world.”
3 Boys Farm consistently provides its clientele with premium fresh vegetables year-round without interruption.
Customers -- including upscale, ethnic and fusion restaurants -- rave about the quality and variety of the produce and the ability to cook with the vegetables and herbs just hours after they’ve been picked.
Jason Cline: “The biggest advantage for me is being able to give the freshest product I can possibly give. Up to probably six hours before it’s on the plate, it’s still living. The size factor, he will give me any size I want. He will grow me whatever I want. He also gives me ideas as well and what he can produce for me. And it helps me gear my menu to give the ideal freshest quality to my customers. The customers love that it’s organic. They constantly ask, what’s new coming in and I’m able to give them a different answer each time. It’s just phenomenal.”
Robert Tornello: “What we want to do here from a buy-local, grow-local and sustainable operation is be able to have our produce go from the greenhouse to the table in 24 hours or less. As an individual and as a businessperson, you can benefit from that, because now we’re going to produce the food that we know there is demand for, which is being imported either from Mexico or Chile or from another state and we can grow locally.”
Each hydroponic building circulates 18,000 gallons per day.
Depending on the crop, this constant flow of water can be circulated for up to two weeks.
Each time the water returns to the main tank it is aerated and the pH and nutrient levels are checked and adjusted as necessary.
As water is lost due to evaporation, transpiration and bio-mass production, the tanks are simply topped off with more rainwater.
To manage the system for maximum efficiency, sustainability and interactivity, 11 miles of underground communication cables were installed.
Ground irrometers, as well as temperature and humidity sensors in each building, are connected to the main control room where overall hydration and irrigation delivery is managed.
Tornello has calculated that this system reduces his annual draw from the aquifer by over 10 million gallons of water.
Because it uses a closed-loop system, the farm had to deal with the nutrient-rich water after it has run its cycle.
To do so, Tornello built a three-quarter acre herb house where the nutrients would be used one last time in the soilless plant media, virtually eliminating any wastewater.
Jemy Hinton, IFAS: “You have to applaud his efforts in going above and beyond the Best Management Practices program and making sure that he doesn’t have anything going off of those plants. He’s reusing everything that he can. He’s kind of a poster child for the best management practices program as far as not having any offsite discharge or anything going into the groundwater.”
Tornello has partnered with many government agencies both state and federal including the Southwest Florida Water Management District, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
His attention to detail and the way he has incorporated his concern for the environment into the farm’s design has impressed them all.
Randal Cooper, SWFWMD FARMS Program: “He’s come up with a unique way to capture runoff form the rooftops, come up with unique ways to capture and re-circulate water from these slope trays. He’s able to chill it down which helps the plants. He’s just come up with all this on his own. I’m not sure what training he has but he’s very creative, very technical. It’s very impressive what he’s done here.”
Florida summers are too hot to grow leafy vegetables and most crops are finished by June, even in the northernmost part of the state.
At 3 Boys Farm, however, the greenhouses maintain an average air temperature of 76 degrees year-round.
To regulate the temperature of the greenhouses, water from the system’s underground tanks is circulated through “cooling pads,” exterior walls made of cellulose material.
Large fans at one end of the greenhouse create an air flow through the building.
The warm outside air is draw in across the pads and sufficiently cooled, providing an ideal air temperature for growing.
Wind power is categorized in different classes ranging from 1 to 7.
Florida, with its gentle sea breezes, is a Wind Class 1 state.
The fans that draw the heat out of the greenhouses are producing Class 7 winds.
Recognizing that there is a lot of energy going unused, Robert is in the process of installing turbines just beyond the fans on the outside of the buildings.
These turbines will capture the exhaust and generate enough power to run the herb house, fans and rain water pumps.
Robert Tornello: “Local, sustainable harvesting is really what this whole thing is about. We’ve already been asked if we can help people in different countries be able to use what we’ve learned in this technology, and the answer is yes, this can be duplicated. We can go to South America, we can go to Grenada, we can go to Haiti and build a similar type operation and teach them how they can build and grow sustainably throughout the year. We are not slaves to a seasonal environment or an environmental condition that we have no control of. We’ve learned now how to use what we’ve got to work within that and change that environment inside those buildings. And, you know, the sky is the limit.”