GYO Greens: Ponte Vedra Aquaponics Farm
Close to the Tournament of Players Championship (TPC) at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, nestled among the homes of PGA & NFL players is the one-acre GYO GREENS Ponte Vedra aquaponics farm. “We grow specialty petite greens, microgreens, petite veggies, and edible flowers,” says the owner Helga Tan Fellows. “Our variety of petite greens is large and we offer those in seasonal arrangements. Our microgreens include various young vegetable leaves like broccoli, carrots, Pac Choi, celery, and the likes. We grow other items like petite radishes in the outdoor planters, more mature vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, okra, etc.”
Education coupled with sustainable farming is at the core of the GYO Greens mission. They have been serving as an educational resource for area elementary, high schools, and universities since opening in 2014. “It is wonderful to be able to share this place for those who want to learn,” says Fellows. “I have been fortunate to live in a few countries in Asia and Europe and visit and learn from other colleagues and farmers. Of course, many local farmers have been very supportive and shared a lot. I figure if I could do this, then I must share it. When the student is ready, they are welcome to visit and learn. Our mission is straightforward: To grow fresh, natural, and delicious specialty products while educating our community about Aquaponics and Sustainable farming.”
GYO translates from Japanese to the English word fish. The farm has two 3000 square foot greenhouses with 4500 planting pots per greenhouse producing organic greens and herbs for chefs in the area’s high-end restaurants. Fellows published “The GYO Greens Cookbook, Recipes from First Coast Chefs and Friends,” featuring dishes that include her greens, herbs, and flower garnishes.
Upon entering the property, visitors cross over 100% reclaimed material walking over recycled granite pavers under cover of a solar array that supplies approximately 75% of the facility’s power.
GYO Greens Ponte Vedra aquaponics farm system design consists of three fish tanks containing approximately 1000 koi in one of their two greenhouses. The system pumps 10,000 gallons of water and effluent pumped through an Aquaponics solids filter (swirl filter). Then the water passes through an up-flow filter followed by a biofilter that then goes through 2 Pentair UV lights with an easy-to-monitor inline Milwaukee pH Meter. The filtration separates solids with the remainder flowing through plant tables using the dynamic root floating (DRF) technique for plants to pick up nutrients from the water that recirculates through this closed system. The system installation and their ongoing quality auditor and consultants are Aquaponics Engineering and Design. “The simplicity of the system makes it very easy to maintain as long as you follow consistently and properly the operating tasks,” says Fellows. “Like any process, it is important to be trained and knowledgeable. We are constantly learning about the plants and water parameters. Monitoring the water quality parameters to prevent issues and adjust as needed is essential to ensure a healthy system.”
The nitrogen cycle, fundamental to pond science is at work in the aquaponics system. Fish waste is converted to nitrogen that fertilizes the plants, which, in turn, cleans the water that cycles back to the fish. The GYO Greens team has scheduled weekly fish health checks along with constant monitoring of the aquaponics system chemistry. They have a quarantine tank for isolating fish prior to introducing them into the system as well as treating sick fish. The only consistent supplementation is Iron, which is often lacking in aquaponics systems. Iron is a necessary plant micronutrient that, when deficient, can cause yellowing of leaves and when available improves plant quality and yield.
Portions of the system go through regular maintenance but the system is never entirely shut down. “It is busy here,” says Fellows. “We have a rigorous weekly schedule dictated by our procedures and farm requirements. We tend to the plants and fish every day, of course. But typically, on Mondays, we are making sure plants are Ok and preparing orders while also calling customers. Then we have two days dedicated to water testing and fish management and another day for pest management. Then, two days dedicated to deliveries. During the weekend, we sort of “reset” the farm with some extra mandatory maintenance, cleaning, etc., and we take time off to reenergize!”
The farm has grown, but as for the future, “Right now, it is the right size for us,” says Fellows. “We were smaller, and in 2018 we expanded to the second greenhouse. No plans to do further expansion as this is the perfect size for the current business and education.” She sees her aquaponics system as akin to any other farm. “At the end, we are all passionate farmers trying to promote this process,” says Fellows. “We may have unique processes that set each farm apart, but in the end, we are all farmers. For instance, we use our aquaponics water to grow our microgreens. We also use the fish water runoff to fertilize our planters outdoors.”
Being that Fellows has an engineering background, some might question their ability to take on such a venture as this, but she dismisses those concerns. “It helped, of course, when planning and understanding the process and eventually running it,” says Fellows. “However, initially, the decision was pure out of convenience and a bit of having a hobby to spend “free time.” It is a great way to grow plants beautifully in a natural closed-loop without adding many nutrients. Urban farming, in my opinion, will play a big role in the future to supplement traditional farming as the population continues to grow and space is very limited.”
There were a few problems initially that required adjustments. “We lost power failure due to extreme weather conditions before we were able to have our power back up system,” says Fellows. “Very early in our journey. We lost a lot of fish. Lots of tears. We love our fish!”
Fellows credits their success to “Genuine public interest for healthy and local food and of course learning about farming on the business side of things. We can’t keep up with the requests for tours and education. Which I am thrilled and very proud as education has always been in the forefront of GYO’s existence and mission.”
Like all other businesses dependent on the public and especially restaurants, they were impacted by the pandemic of 2020. When asked about this, Fellows explained they shut down to the public as a safety precaution that only restarted in July of 2021. “Our main customers were only restaurants,” says Fellows. “When they closed, we went to zero sales. It was shocking, of course. However, this gave us the opportunity to evaluate our strategy. We donated some of the produce to centers in need. We began selling directly to the community that always expressed interest in buying from us. Selling to the community led to our new online store, which is now up and running and quite the tool for reaching customers beyond restaurants. We also took time to finish projects like implementing the solar array and minor improvements around the greenhouses and the grounds. I kept reminding my team of the wonderful words of Ms. Hepburn: “To plant a seed is to believe in tomorrow” – this is how we have kept moving along…. The beauty of the plants reminds us how special is the place we work. The community stepped in when the pandemic hit, so it was wonderful and quite touching to see all the support.”
GYO Greens Ponte Vedra aquaponics farm mission focused on education has built a dedicated community. Fellows credits the community with her most cherished memories as, “It is always with students,” says Fellows. “We have kept all the thanks for having those students visit us, learn and be so excited about the process. Some of the young ones insist that the parents bring them back. They become our customers too. When the students are older, they offer to volunteer or help in special events. We have a great success story here with one of our farmers. She was a high school volunteer who is now a key member of the farm team. She is not here today as she is delivering produce and talking to customers.”
When asking Fellows, the priorities of GYO Greens into the future, she responds, “Strictly education but to educate we need to farm and grow produce. Our customers (both restaurants and retail) keep us busy and alive! We now have the approval to become a nonprofit organization and upgrade our education offerings and even provide scholarships. We have already been collaborating and planning with local universities. We HOPE fall will be a great start of this new phase.”
To find out more about GYO Greens Ponte Vedra Aquaponics Farm, place an order or schedule a tour visit www.gyogreens.com.
Earth Works of Jacksonville, supports the mission of GYO Greens as their values are closely aligned with ours. For comprehensive solutions to your specific lawn, garden, pond, and landscaping needs contact Earth Works of Jacksonville online and at 904-996-0712. Proudly serving clients in Northeast Florida, including Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra Beach, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, Jacksonville Beach, Nocatee, St. Johns, Fleming Island, Orange Park, Middleburg, Green Cove Springs, Amelia Island, Fernandina, and St. Augustine.