A visit to Pine Island Botanicals is a refreshing experience. Many locals know Michael Wallace from his regular booths at the farmer's markets at Sanibel, Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Punta Gorda and enjoy his fresh produce but few know about the intensive and ever-growing enterprise he has going on his four acres on Pine Island.
Formerly with Chico's in the early years, Wallace was responsible for development and quality control and travelled the world for Chico's. When Chico's went corporate, Wallace retired and decided to use the things he had learned on his world travels to Third World countries on economical ways of growing that had been practiced for centuries in villages where sustenance came from growing without the use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. Wallace brought everything he had learned to his four-acre plot on Pine Island and started working for himself.
As you tour the facilities, you notice the lack of insects and a vibrant natural landscape filled with plants, many of which you think would have a hard time growing here. Wallace does everything local and uses local resources to make his gardens thrive. Pine Island is known for its sugar sand, usually wonderful for the palm tree farms, but impossible to grow food crops due to the lack of nutrients. Wallace has two area tree services bring their clean waste to his farm where it is turned into compost. Not just any waste will do - Wallace will take only certain trees like mahogany and pine, which after years of trial and error, he has discovered make the best compost for the sugar sand. He then has horse manure hauled in from carefully selected ranches - he will only take manure where the animals have been fed organic food - no pesticides, hormones or additives so it is the best quality manure possible. Island Crab, a local fishhouse, gives him their crab trash which also is worked into the soil and provides calcium and attracts a certain type of bacteria that eats chitin, the eggshell of the nematode, the biggest enemy to produce growers in Florida. After natural probiotics are added, he then plants buckwheat, Japanese millet and cowpeas on a rotating basis, tilling them back into the soil. After three months of preparation, he is ready to plant. Bugs like ladybugs and beneficials that take care of a lot of the insect problems come naturally to the gardens - he doesn't need to purchase them. It took Wallace more than four years of experimentation to come up with this formula, and he is constantly working to improve it.
Carol Orr Hartman
Michael Wallace explains his flowing hydroponic system.
Only heirloom quality and seeds he has personally collected from his garden are used - no hybrids are allowed so that he is planting the purest seed that has stood the test of time. It is not unusual to see patches of plants throughout the farm that he has planted just to experiment with, and if it is successful, he harvests the seeds, one at a time, to replant. Any seeds he purchases, he has researched the farm where he obtained them to assure that they are organic and the finest quality and, if they don't get 90 percent germination, he returns them.
Sprouts are another part of the business and a local favorite. Wallace has partnered with Christine Lindsey, "The Sprout Queen," to produce 12 different varieties of sprouts and micro greens from typical alfalfa and broccoli to unusuals like onion and mustard sprouts, chosen for their unique taste and palate appeal. The favorites are sunflower greens and wheatgrass.
Most local farms are only open during the growing season. Wallace's is a 365-day-a-year enterprise. If he can't grow outside, he grows inside hydroponically in a specially developed system that has been the subject of visits from ECHO and local schools. Wallace uses a term, biodynamic, when describing his techniques. Everything is generated here, all remains are used and they compost everything in a circle of life that keeps regenerating itself. Chickens are fed the leavings from the organic sprout trays and watermelon. Their waste is cycled back into the compost for additional fertilizer.
His hydroponic growing areas are very simple, yet high tech. He has two different types of hydroponic processes (static and flowing) and is developing his own as he grows. Greens and herbs are grown in these areas in addition to the outside plantings. Everything is grown for taste, color and nutritional value. Originally told it couldn't be done, he took that as a challenge and his hydroponic systems are totally chemical and pesticide free. Worm tea, organic byproducts, and natural probiotics are fed through the static system or flow through the flowing system at about 250 gallons a day to supply more than 4,000 cells (plants). Where the normal home sprouter will trim the tops off and leave the greens to regrow, Wallace gives only one cutting and then puts the remains back into the system to provide maximum nutrients. Water is stored in underground tanks to keep the temperature at a constant 75 degrees so that the hydroponic plants get the optimum consistent water temperature for maximum growth.
Right now the farm is 80 percent planted and 20 percent hydroponic. Wallace's goal is to change that to 60 percent/40 percent and he is well on his way with a recent expansion that will hold 13,000 cells. After months of research, he has developed lettuce and mustard green combinations that he will offer to local chefs where they can come to the farm, choose their favorite and Wallace will combine and grow that formula specifically for that restaurant. He states that once you taste fresh greens grown locally, you will never go back to store-bought greens - the flavors explode in your mouth. Wallace can process greens from seed to harvest in 3-4 weeks and sprouts in 7-8 days. With his new virus-resistant screened greenhouses, these can grow year round.
Future expansion includes incorporating fish and shrimp into the hydroponic system - he has been successful with his experiments and hopes to have the fish thrive off the natural nutrients of the plants and the plants thrive off the fertilization process of the fish.
Regular customer "Mango John" raises mangoes on Pine Island and grows his own sprouts and juices sunflower greens and wheat grass. When asked why he likes to come to Pine Island Botanicals, he said "Wallace exhibits a unique dedication to his craft and is doing a service to the community by motivating others to eat well. He uses a lot of imagination and should be recognized Wallace also furnishes to local health food stores, has just gone into Simply Fresh (Cape Coral) and is meeting with Bailey's on Sanibel to see if he can serve that area year round through the store as he has a large following of Sanibel residents during season at the Farmer's Market.
Wallace is a true self-made American who has reinvented himself and is giving back by providing a high quality product that fills a need at a good price.
Wallace's prices are comparable or less than many local markets for a higher quality of food.
To use a quote of Wallace's: "All of my plants and chickens are happy and healthy - that is why the greens and eggs taste so good and are so nutritious."
For more information about Pine Island Botanicals, locations and times of farmer's markets, visit www.PineIsland-Botanicals.com. Farm tours are best on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, please call ahead.