By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
Matthew Schinsing first noticed the Gyo Greens farm when he attended a nearby middle school, driving past it every day. When he entered a research-based science class at Episcopal High School years later, Schinsing had a reason to visit: his interest in research and sustainable agriculture. His friend, Natalie Bryant, connected him with the Gyo Greens staff and soon he had an opportunity to conduct a science project involving plant science at the farm during his senior year.
This type of partnership is at the heart of Gyo Greens, an aquaponics farm off Canal Boulevard that opened in 2014. At the end of this year, the farm will celebrate 10 years since Gyo Greens owner Helga Tan Fellows purchased the land with the garden/education vision in mind.
According to Gyo Greens, the farm uses a sustainable farming method that combines traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as koi fish in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. It is a constant loop with the plants benefitting from the fish water, and the fish getting quality water in return. The farm is named for the Japanese word for fish, gyo.
“It is amazing that after all these years, we still have the same principles and mission,” said Tan Fellows. “Education is the reason we are still around. We keep learning through our students and their endless curiosity and questions. We also learn via our customers who keep us challenged to consistently deliver top quality, natural and organic produce. In exchange, we teach all of them about the importance of sustainable farming and our precious environment.”
The farm also partners with the University of North Florida, working with interns and volunteers.
In January, Gyo Greens became a nonprofit organization with the hopes of raising funds through donations and events to expand its educational outreach programs. The farm, which uses no pesticides or chemicals, sits on one acre, and includes a 3,000 square foot greenhouse.
In addition to education, Gyo Greens Farm also delivers produce to about 30 local restaurants, using a rafting system to ensure that chefs get the freshest ingredients. Produce arrives “live” and is grown at each chef’s request. All profits go right back into the farm, said Tan Fellows.
“We are a very niche farm. Most of what we have is all pre-sold,” said Gyo Greens farm manager Reed Hepperly. “Chefs are looking for high quality produce and things they are not likely to find anywhere else. We try to accommodate what they want.”
Amaranth, blue pea flowers, microgreens and marigolds tend to be popular with chefs, said Hepperly.
“We provide the raw materials,” said Hepperly. “Each chef has their own expression and way of taking it to the next level.”
Hepperly, who has been the farm manager for one year, said he began at Gyo Greens as a volunteer and then realized that he had more to offer. Later, he learned that he and Tan Fellows were both from the same town in Puerto Rico (Mayaguez), a happy coincidence. Hepperly and his seven -year-old daughter both enjoy gardening and farming together. Tan Fellows added that Hepperly’s daughter “can honestly almost do a tour to visitors on her own.”
Hepperly, who had a garden and focused on composting in Puerto Rico, said he likes the challenge of farming.
“It changes every day. Right now, we are fighting the heat,” said Hepperly, adding that the farm is at its busiest during THE PLAYERS and during the fall to winter transition. “Every time of the year provides a different transition. It is never boring, and it always keeps you occupied.”
For Schinsing, now a freshman at University of California, Los Angeles, the research he conducted at Gyo Greens earned him third in the state and he placed as a qualifier for internationals in his category. He was able to build his own aquaponics system at Gyo Greens to test a compound protein that enters the system and lowers the stress conditions around the plant and increases the growth rate. The goal, he said, is to optimize aquaponics farming in what is “a very fragile system.”
Schinsing said the project involved an intense amount of research and lab work over a three-week period, and Hepperly was incredibly helpful throughout his time at Gyo Greens. The experience also prepared him well for his current goals. He has a double major of computer science and biology and would like to be a software engineer for a commercial scale farm or for a large tech company one day.
[Author’s note: For tours and hands-on training, contact Gyo Greens at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Photo courtesy Helga Tan Fellows
Andrea Acosta is the Operations lead but started as a high school volunteer.