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A small Sarasota startup school puts dreams of farming to the test

A man in a T-shirt, sunglasses and baseball cap stands in a field
Kerry Sheridan
/
WUSF
Igor Pertile is one of a few students who have made it to the incubator stage of the program, which involves hands-on practice growing vegetables and fruits and fighting diseases and pests that afflict the crops.

“You know the best way to end up with a million dollars in farming?” jokes Rod Greder, a former cattle farmer from Iowa. “Start with 2 million.”

Farming has long been tough business. Small farmers are increasingly being squeezed out by high land prices, bigger conglomerates, foreign competition, alongside the usual hazards like pests, diseases, and storms.

Today, the number of farms in America continues to shrink, as the average farmer is getting grayer, and is now age 58 according to government data.

Rod Greder believes there has been a missing link in raising the next generation of farmers in America, which a small farm startup school he launched in Sarasota last year aims to address.

The classes give would-be farmers a chance to practice in the field, get advice on building a business plan, and have someone connect them with buyers and customers along the way.

After decades of experience farming cattle in Minnesota, and teaching young farmers there, he brought his ideas to Sarasota when he and his wife moved recently, eyeing retirement one day.

Colleagues call him the “dream crusher,” and Greder, a native Iowan, doesn’t mind.

“I don't apologize for that. Because if I save somebody, a marriage, their retirement funds, whatever it is, if I save them that I consider that a win," said Greder, whose title is sustainable agriculture agent for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"I deal with a lot of dreamers who all think they want to be a farmer until they get outside and it's 95 and 105 heat index and then (they say), 'Aw, this isn't as much fun as I thought it was!’ "

Man in sunglasses, baseball cap and blue shirt stands in a greenhouse
Kerry Sheridan
/
WUSF
Rod Greder is a native Iowan who spent years farming cattle in Minnesota before moving to Sarasota, Florida.

Lessons in raising crops and fish

The farm startup school enrolled 30 students in its first year, in 2023, and nine so far this year.

Based at Mote Aquaculture Park in Sarasota, the school gives students a chance to learn about planting crops and farming fish.

In one building, red drum fish swim around in large saltwater tanks.

The wastewater these fish create doesn't flow out to sea. Instead, it is filtered and used to irrigate a crop of edible plants like sea kale and purslane in a nearby greenhouse.

"All of the effluent here, goes through filters, it's decontaminated and that flows through some underground pipes here and becomes the water for the plants that are grown in the aquaponics building," Greder said.

“You come in and you try to do everything like correctly and then all of a sudden, a watermelon pops up. Now that was a flower a couple of weeks ago, where did that come from? "
Igor Pertile

A short walk down a path, there's a field, a little less than an acre in size, where students can practice growing crops.

“Last season we did some Swiss chard, tomatoes, beets, strawberries, okra,” said Igor Pertile.

He's 29, and is one of a few students who have progressed to the incubator stage of the program, where they get to practice in the field. He graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree focusing on horticulture.

"In school, I learned how to grow the plants, how to tell if it's nutritional deficiency, or what bugs might be eating it, but I didn't learn — I wasn't taught the business side of things. So, being in this program, it's a great place to make mistakes," Pertile said.

Picking up tips along the way

Sometimes, the most basic things can be a big challenge.

“When we first started, a couple months ago, we were hand-watering everything. We realized it was taking like three hours, once we got everything planted and we were like, we’ve got to switch it up," Pertile recalled.

So he and another student set up an irrigation system, but the pressure was too high, and it burst.

"Oh man, we worked so hard to put this together, and we had to redo it all, and put in a pressure gauge,” Pertile said. “But it's learning. Thankfully our mortgage doesn't rely on this."

Greder chimed in: "Exactly, that is why we have this incubator. Because this is low stakes."

Dark fish swim in yellow tinged water in a circular tank
Kerry Sheridan
/
WUSF
Red drum fish are raised in tanks at the Mote Aquaculture facility on Fruitville Road in Sarasota.

The cost of the program is a few hundred dollars to get started. That's a bargain, especially considering the price of farmland nearby.

“Right down the road, there's a five-acre farm that's listed for about 3.7 million,” said Pertile. “No farmer can afford that. That's going to be bought and turned into someone's house."

A variety of outcomes

According to Greder, the small farm startup school aims to teach farmers how to diversify their income streams, and isn't necessarily trying to produce small farmers.

"We're agnostic in terms of what they want to do. Some people that go through the program want to start a small farm, sell at a farmer’s market, and maybe sell at a roadside stand and stay small. This is a side business for them,” Greder said.

“Others — I think Igor would probably be in this category — say ‘I want to make a business out of this, I want this to be my primary income, I want to grow this thing.’ "

In line with teaching the realities of farming, Greder said he does not encourage students to farm in ways that may be popular, but in his view, impractical.

“So many people want to do it organic, no pesticides, natural, no tillage, there's a thousand terms — most people don't know what they mean, but they throw them around,” Greder said.

“I say, you're starting out tying both your hands and your feet behind your back, and then you want to be successful? There's a reason we do tillage, there's a reason we use pesticides. It's not because we want to and we just are lazy, it's because we need to use the tools that are available to us. Because the Florida environment is unforgiving.”

“If you want to use them less," Greder said, "you want to use more sustainable ones, OK great. But start penalizing yourself and you will fail.”

Pertile said he is working toward farming fish, and growing vegetables that customers can buy via subscription.

He said he has friends in computer science who make good money. But to him, a desk job can't compare to the magic he feels when things go right in the field.

“You come in and you try to do everything like correctly and then all of a sudden, a watermelon pops up. Now that was a flower a couple of weeks ago, where did that come from? And so yeah, to me, it's really rewarding. My dreams are still alive, you know, it's not completely crushed."

Standing next to him, Greder chuckled a little. That was his goal all along, to help students like Pertile transform their dreams into reality.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.