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Pine Island Botanicals is ‘feel good’ operation

By Staff | May 11, 2012

CAROL ORR HARTMAN A variety of greens are grown in this pesticide-free and organic hydroponic system.

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, ever-growing enterprise he has going on his four acres on Pine Island.

A former executive of 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, Michael retired and decided to utilize the things he had learned on his 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. Michael brought everything he had learned to Pine Island and started working for himself.

Touring 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 utilizes local resources to make his gardens thrive. Pine Island is known for its sugar sand, usually wonderful for palm tree farms, but impossible to grow food because there are no nutrients in it.

Wallace has contracted with two area tree services to bring their waste to his farm and turned into compost. Not just any waste will do. Wallace takes only certain trees like mahogany and pine, which after years of trial and error he discovered makes the best compost for the sugar sand.

He then has horse manure hauled in from carefully selected ranches. He only takes manure where the animals have been fed organic food no pesticides, hormones or additives so it is the best quality manure possible. Local crab fishermen give him their crab trash which is worked into the soil to provide calcium and attracts a certain type of bacteria that eats nematodes, the biggest enemy to produce growers in Florida.

CAROL ORR HARTMAN Oriental greens, usually hard to find, are plentiful here.

After natural probiotics are added, he plants buckwheat, chicken millet and kelp in a rotating basis which is tilled back into the soil. After three months of preparation, he is ready to plant. Bugs, like ladybugs and predatory worms, take care of a lot of the insect problems that come naturally to gardens. He doesn’t need to purchase them. It took him more than four years of experimentation to come up with this formula and he is constantly working to improve it.

Only heirloom quality and seeds he has personally collected from his garden are used. No hybrids are allowed so he is planting the purest seed that have stood the test of time.

It’s not unusual to see patches of plants throughout the farm that he has planted just to experiment with. 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 they are organic and the finest quality. If he don’t get 90 percent germination, he returns them. A lot of sunflower seeds used in his popular sprouts comes from Canada where they are more dedicated to organic growth.

Most local farms are only open during the growing season. Wallace 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 coined the 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. They in turn lay eggs that customers like Marcia Kimball of Sanibel say are the best she has ever tasted. Waste is cycled back into the compost for additional fertilizer.

Wallace’s 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. Pin worm tea, recycling waste 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 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 plans to change that to 60-40 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 greens. 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 three to four weeks and sprouts in seven to eight days. With his new virus resistant greenhouses, he can grow year round.

Future expansion includes incorporating fish and shrimp into the hydroponic system. He has been successful with 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 spouts and juices sunflower greens and wheat grass. When asked why he likes to come to Pine Island Botanicals, John says, “Warren 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 nationally for his work and quality.”

Wallace also supplies 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 the island year round since 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. His prices for a higher quality of food are comparable or less than many local markets.

“All of my plants and chickens are happy and healthy,” Wallace says. “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.PineIslandBotanicals.com. Farm tours are best on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, please call ahead.