Ed Chiles is taking a bet on Gamble Creek Farm that sustainable farming under his watch will pay off into sustainable diners.
Chiles, chief executive officer of the Chiles Group, has signed a long-term lease to operate Gamble Creek Farm, 14950 Golf Course Road, and re-open the former community supported agriculture operation owned by the non-profit Florida West Coast Resource Conservation & Development Council.
It's a part of Chiles vertically integrating his operations to be as sustainable as can be with a focus on locally sourced organic produce and fresh seafood.
"We've got to do these things because they're important and they speak to who we are. They speak to what our values are," Chiles said. "It's the right way to do things, and I think it could be profitable, and I expect it to be. I hope I get to see it to be before I fall over or run out of money."
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At Gamble Creek, with the help of longtime Manatee County farmer Eric Geraldson and supervision by Robert Turnello of 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin, Chiles will grow 15 acres of organic and row crops plus hydroponic vegetables with the goal to have them picked in the morning and served later that day at the Sandbar, BeachHouse and Mar Vista Dockside restaurants on Manatee's barrier islands.
"If we can pick in the morning and serve in the afternoon, that's going to be really cool," Chiles said. "It's going to be something that says to our customers this is not your ordinary restaurant."
Chiles wrapped up the lease in September and the farm is being cleaned up and prepared after more than a year of inactivity. Pomegranate trees are growing on their own, the hydroponic containers are looking manageable. Geraldson is germinating seeds now and hopes to have a large daily haul going to the restaurants from the crops at Gamble Creek.
"What we don't grow for the restaurants will probably be a cash crop where it will be in high demand, so kale is a no brainer," Geraldson said.
Geraldson has known Chiles for more than 30 years and is now entrusted with making Gamble Creek a go for his friend. The RC and D acquired the property in 2006 and had a site plan to develop the farm similar to the Geraldson Community Farm the non-profit runs. The organization received federal money and installed a tailwater recovery system for irrigation, but didn't have the same success thanks to a larger likelihood for freezes in the winter and floods during the summer. The organization locked the gate and walked away from it looking for someone to take control, and that's where Chiles stepped up.
"It's a rich piece of property, and we're looking forward to using this to better serve our customers in our three restaurants as well as citizens in Manatee County with great locally grown vegetables, produce, and maybe get into some citrus, that is done in a sustainable way right here in their backyard," Chiles said.
An identity and a classroom
Now it's poised to be a centerpiece to upscale dining destinations on the islands, and Geraldson is impressed with Chiles taking the risk on Gamble Creek.
"I think it's bold, but I think its day has come. I think it's a natural fit, you know? Having all these operations, a restaurant would love to dictate what they're growing," Geraldson said. "Hopefully we can get the chefs involved with their identity, too."
That identity is visually carried to each of the restaurants that will feature pick-and-pull earth boxes, too, where transplanted herbs will be on hand for the chefs to pick and to help educate the customers, he added.
The 26-acre property also includes a Center for Integrated Agriculture building with a classroom Chiles hopes to use with community partners and a shell built for an industrial kitchen where curing and packaging for Cortez bottarga will be staged for Anna Maria Fish Co., starting Nov. 15. The company was started by Anna Maria native and LOLA Wines owner Seth Cripe and Chiles came on board to support the movement.
"We're certainly growing for our restaurants, and we'll grow for our local market, and we'll grow for those who are looking for high quality locally grown produce," Chiles said.
The complete vision is still being worked out as Gamble Creek Farm stands as a field of dreams, turning a sandy field and dried up crops into a working farm again in hopes to be a self-sustaining operation.
A walk around the property, Chiles and Geraldson had visions of farm to table dinners by Gamble Creek. At one row, Chiles pumped Geraldson to grow cash crops kale and arugula that are also popular at the restaurants, then Chiles asked if the farm can ease into tri-color carrots. He later rattles off other veggies he wants to see there: zucchini, penny pan squash, eggplant, cucumbers, cabbage, arugula, organic lettuce and peppers. The combination of vegetables that can be grown are plentiful, but careful planning is needed between the chefs that use the food and 3 Boys Farm where other vegetables are used.
"We're going to feel our way along as we do this and see what makes sense, what helps us pay the bills and keep profitable and what we want for our cours d'ete," Chiles said, adding that his group purchases more than $1 million worth of produce each year.
But it's the translation to the diners coming through his restaurants' doors that is key.
Chiles is focused on educating the diner so they know where the food is coming from and yes, the restaurant has its own farms and is growing the food under its watch to your plate. Though the public can't come to the farm and pick and buy vegetables themselves.
"I'm interested in looking at putting together carts in front of the restaurants," Chiles said. "So, we grow the stuff and you eat it in the restaurant and you can take some of it home if you like."
A circle of sustainability
The circle of sustainability starts at the sea and ends in the soil through Chiles' vision. As much as he loves the local fishing industry and the mullet, he is disappointed in what he sees thrown overboard each year when fisherman take the roe out of the females and discard the fish overboard, males too, to wash ashore.
The goal is to take that fish plus the remnants of gutted fish, or awfuls, and combine it with wood chips, waste stream and cuttings from Gamble Creek, 3 Boys Farm and compost from his restaurants to make a fish enhanced compost and use it to fertilize crops at Gamble Creek. Trenches will be dug to bury the compost 18 inches underground to avoid wild boars digging through the fields.
Chiles calls his compost operation a Cortez Pilgrim's Pride, by taking the remnants of the fish from sea and putting it back into the ground to use as much of the hunted animal as you can. He's taking that philosophy to his staff too.
"I like to take the culture to another step and say if you want to work here, you're going to have to compost," Chiles said about training his staff to begin the process. "We want people who get that and want to go the extra mile."
Some of the fish comes from his existing supplier based in Gulfport.
"I want to take the waste stream from Save On Seafood, which is one of our biggest fish distributors," Chiles said. "He takes 30,000 pounds of Grade A fillet out of there to Publix, to Darden, to people like us. And he has 7,000 pounds of offal a day," Chiles said.
Those offal will be stripped of every last ounce of usable meat to create red snapper collar, swordfish ribs and snapper crudo. The rest of the meat will be put into the ground.
A haul from 3 Boys
Gamble Creek's operations will also dovetail with 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin that serves as a research lab for inventive ways to grow certified organic hydroponic foods free from chemicals and genetically modified pollination.
Chiles also owns a 40 percent stake in 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin, with Geraldson and Turnello, who speak passionately about the thought and work that goes into his organic operation.
It's a sophisticated, pristine operation with holding tanks for rain water that feeds into radiators to cool the greenhouses. They anticipate feeding the air through tunnels to connect the buildings to an expansion now underway.
You'll see 18 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, kale, lettuce and hybrids like an arugula mixed with a pepper to give a pop to the taste. The farm is able to turn around 12 full crops in a year, Turnello said. That's 212,000 sets a month.
That's more than what Chiles can use, so the farm is tapping into other markets and restaurants, Turnello said. Chefs are already waiting for the heirloom tomatoes to mature thanks to their sweet taste.
"Their plates will be colorful, and that's the most important thing," Turnello said. "You want something that tastes good, but when it's visually appealing and the tomatoes are cut in half, and they have multiple colors inside them itself. Then there's that natural sweetness there and the acid, it's a mix that most people aren't familiar with."
The farm leaves no question unanswered when it comes to the food's origins. Each seed is certified organic, and once they're in a seed packet, barcodes are assigned from seed packets to boxes and bags of vegetables that can tell a buyer the journey of the vegetable from seed to salad.
"From a food safety point of view, everything that leaves here, we know the origin of the seed, who planted it, how long it was in here and exactly where it went and when it got delivered," Turnello said. "In doing that, it's a full circle of responsibility to the end user, which most growers cannot do. The other thing is for quality control."
He's so into doing things green and free from genetic modification, he even buys his own bumblebees for his tomato operation.
"Bumblebees are regular honeybees, and they don't know boundaries. They just fly from place to place," he said. "What happens is that they'll bring GMO pollen to your plant."
Coordination between Gamble and 3 Boys will take time, but plans are already in the works to have Japanese eggplant start at Gamble Creek and transition it during the season to 3 Boys as Turnello develops hydroponic programs at both farms.
For Chiles, the ability to invest in sustainable farming with Gamble Creek and 3 Boys isn't about he can, but it's that he should be on the cutting edge as he gets into his twilight years.
"That's where I want to be on the last segment of my career. After 34 years I don't get that much more time. I get maybe 15 if I'm lucky, so that's where I want to be" Chiles said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter@ImYourChuck.