On the final stop of the Lee County Urban Farm Tour, agrotourist Constance Sanvi held a fresh head of lettuce bigger than a basketball and jokingly posed for a picture. It was also passed down the line so other visitors would be able to feel its smooth leaves or how heavy it really was.
They were welcomed by the Lewis family -- a father and son team from New York City -- who purchased Palm Creek Produce a year ago, after Ryan Lewis described to his father about the process of industrialized farming and where food really came from.
"They came to me after seeing a show on television about the type of food in this country," said Ryan's father James, who moved to Southwest Florida after getting injured on the job.
Agrotourist Constance Sanvi poses with a head of lettuce at Palm Creek Produce. MCKENZIE CASSIDY.
Father and son set out constructing much of the hydroponic farm themselves, following classic Dutch hydroponic farming methods, and it's now capable of holding up to 60,000 plants. Ryan Lewis also decided to partner with Edible Garden, a national brand that teams up with local farmers to provide produce that is natural, free of contaminants or pesticides, and shortens the amount of time it takes for food to travel from the farm to market.
Between 2008 and 2011, the amount of local produce markets in the United States increased by 53 percent after a surge of community farms, co-ops, and rooftop gardens appeared along suburbs and cities, according to data from Edible Garden. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the sale of locally-grown food reached $7 billion in 2011.
With Edible Garden as a partner, Ryan Lewis said there was an opportunity for growth and expansion, with the goal of keeping food safe, fresh, and delicious.
"We want to expand the farm and there's plenty of room," he said, adding that most grocery stories carry produce that is shipped in from across the country. "Your product will be one or two hours in the truck and then in the store."
Edible Gardens offers four types of produce for consumers: living basil and lettuce, called "living" because it comes with the root system attached, and herbs that are either cut or potted. Their supply comes from local farms such as Palm Creek Produce; Heartland Growers, Ind.; and NB Plants Belvidere, N.J.; and it all stays within the regional market.
Ryan Lewis took agrotourists on a short tour of the facility and stressed that he didn't use pesticides or GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- and he's working on receiving his organic designation and GAP certification.
A team of helpers join Ryan Lewis each night in harvesting and shipping orders -- usually at 3 a.m. -- and like Edible Garden they live by the motto of keeping "technology and nature in perfect harmony."
The farm is located at 18671 Palm Creek Drive in North Fort Myers. For more information on Edible Garden, visit eatherbs.com.