Creating A Local Food System With A Community-Centric Approach
Indoor Ag-Con is excited to welcome The Villages Grown Executive Director Jennifer Waxman to our conference speaker roster for the October 4-5, 2021 edition at the Hilton Orlando.
The innovative growing complex for The Villages — the active adult retirement community located in Central Florida — The Villages Grown encompasses cutting-edge greenhouses, a state-of-the-art processing facility and delivery fleet. But that’s only part of the incredible story.
As Executive Director, Jennifer is the visionary behind the development of the successful business and educational model for The Villages Grown. We had the chance to talk to Jennifer to learn more about her community-centered approach, expanding markets, wellness programs, initiatives and more.
1 – The Villages is a massive retirement community; how many actual mouths does The Villages Grown feed (size of customer base)?
We could feed the 165,000+ residents multiple times a day with a full and colorful plate of whole foods. Within our community, we span over 3 counties and growing. We not only feed our residents, of which we call ‘The Villagers’, but also thousands of employees. You can find our product in our restaurant chains, independent restaurants, our own retail units, Publix locations, assisted living facilities, hospitals, and the like.
There is a wonderful sense of pride from both The Villagers and the team members who work throughout the community within The Villages Grown. We have created a true Local Food System with a community-centric approach. We are very proud to serve first as an amenity to The Villages and the vibrant community of which we serve. Our community is active and engaged with what we are doing and ready to learn. This is a community of wellness where people are living their best lives and are ‘fueled by The Villages Grown’. In fact, The Villages is home to the largest aging-in-place demographic in the world. We are going to put our money where our mouth is, literally, by embarking on a Health Impact Study to demonstrate that eating this way, from our Local Food System, is beneficial to one’s health and wellbeing.
How do we do it? The Villages Grown is a multi-phased CEA production operation positioned on a total of 85 acres. Currently, we are on Phase 1 (of 4 phases) which covers a 9-acre footprint. Phase I has been in production for over a year and will produce over 7.5 million pounds of a diversified produce product mix. This mix includes all the core items one needs to live a healthy, food-as-medicine, lifestyle,including year-round: Heirloom Tomatoes, Microgreens, Lettuces, Petite Greens, Herbs and Specialty Items.
2.As a follow-up, we were interested to read the exciting news that The Villages Grown is expanding its market beyond the town center and mobile trucks you’ve been selling through, to now sell your produce at Publix. Is this part of a larger plan to reach customers outside of the Villages?
We have already expanded beyond The Villages community and within Central Florida, the Gulf Coast and are entering South Florida mid-August! We will expand our Publix footprint, along with other retailers of which we have already entered (or are soon to enter) but have also become a Florida supplier for four large National Restaurant Groups, as well as into the Cruise Lines and Theme Parks through our distribution partners.
We have at least 3 more buildout Phases to follow as we expand our operations throughout our total acreage, thus allowing us to literally ‘Feed Florida, From Florida’. I think we also take a different approach, and we have a strong and impactful narrative. We grow for nutrients first and foremost, taste naturally follows and we’ve already cracked the code on volume. Most CEAs grow for volume, taste may somewhat be part of the equation, but nutrients rarely are.
This message is getting out about our model and position as the largest CEA in Florida, so we are getting calls from the Big Dogs on a weekly basis. These are exciting times, but a long time in the making! We dedicated almost two years to strategic planning and preselling before we ever broke ground. My consulting team was able to leverage our clients, past strategies, and reputations from our previous worlds to make this happen.
3 – Jennifer, as a woman in what many would define as a male-dominated industry, how have you navigated your way and how would you advise young women seeking to enter the industry?
I love this question and have been asked this a lot since entering the agricultural industry back in 2000. Agriculture has been looked at as a heavy lifting, labor-intensive industry coupled with a ‘Good Ole Boy’ network. Well, welcome to CEA! You just need drive, determination, confidence, experience and – BRAINS! The industry is ever emerging and innovating and a lot of this ebb and flow is powered by amazing female leaders in every sector of CEA (just look at your speakers – well done!).
I am fortunate to be surrounded by powerful female peers in CEA. In fact, we have created a CEA alliance in Florida. I am happy that this alliance includes 4 of the top female CEOs in the business (*one is speaking at your conference as well). We don’t see each other as competition, we work alongside of each other and share Best Practices – and sometimes accounts. On a side note, most of my team is female dominated and this is not by design, but by merit. They are fierce yet nurturing, which is a must in agriculture.
4 – What kind of technology is being employed in terms of your approach to IPM, supplemental lighting and data capture?
We like to say we use ‘age-old agricultural practices coupled with new-age technology.’ As a CEA industry veteran, I am not sold on going simply high-tech – not in the least. It should be about growing a nutrient-dense, tasty, safe, quality product and not all the bells and whistles — which is why so many CEA companies have not, and may never, achieve a ROI.
We use a full IPM strategy, including worker bees that exist in Mother Nature and are crucial for growing the most nutrient-dense, strong plants. We are in Florida, and we use nature’s sunshine as a tool. We supplement when needed using both LED and HPS lighting. We have our facility on full AI with an advanced control system. We capture our data through our control system along with 3 other types of software. Our goal is to use that data to continually improve our SOPs and methodologies.
5 – Indoor Ag Con is all about people and given the built-in, leisurely and social nature of The Villages, tell us how you are bringing members of the community together (i.e., Farmer’s Markets, classes and onsite tours, etc.)?
We are a community-based model of which we have created a true Local Food System. We are not only the grower, but we aggregate from our network of both local family farms, as well as artisans who use our product in their finished products. This approach makes us stand out and is simply the right thing to do. This has garnered a lot of attention, even globally, but especially in The Villages.
We use a multi-media approach for engagement. I can reach 100 to 150,000 Villagers at a time – live at events and/or broadcasted. We also utilize TV, radio, and print programming to educate. We believe that you can’t create a Local Food System without education at the forefront. We have a demonstration kitchen launching soon which is set up like a talk show of which we will have satellite programming distributed to members within and outside of the community as well as with our clients and partners. We are not open to the public due to our Global GAP Certification, but we give our network a ‘taste of The Villages Grown’ through virtual tours.
I am a plant-based cook, and several members of our team are as well, so we also deliver Medical Culinary Wellness programs and initiatives. We also train our medical networks for the Practitioner to the Patient on a Food-as-Medicine lifestyle approach. Quite frankly, it’s a dream, but it isn’t an overnight success. This model has been created over two decades in the agricultural and wellness industry.
My life’s work has been solidified by surrounding myself with innovators who are smarter than me. My team is amazing!