On an overcast day in January, fourth-generation farmer Angela TenBroeck sits on the front porch at Traders Hill Farm to talk sustainable farming. At first blush, this Hilliard farm appears to be just a small collection of greenhouses, but its production output is anything but small.

The farm, owned by the Blaudow family, is set on a plot of several acres located about an hour northwest of downtown Jacksonville. Former head of the Mayport Coastal Sciences Middle School program,

TenBroeck began working with the Blaudows about five years ago. The Blaudow family was new to the area. Tyson Foods closed its North Florida operations in 2003, leaving a huge hole in the local economy and many local chicken farms devastated. The Blaudows purchased a former Tyson farm, and recruited TenBroeck to help them repurpose the old chicken house and establish a more sustainable system of farming that uses fish emulsion to grow vegetables. As TenBroeck says, “nothing is wasted, no pesticides are used, and everything grows faster.”

She describes aquaponics as the marriage of two worlds: aquaculture and the practice of hydroponic farming. The farmers raise tilapia and use the fish waste to provide nutrients to plants that are grown in water.

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As we stroll through the abundant rows of green and red romaine lettuce in one of the greenhouses, the vibrancy and density of the plants is striking.

Swimming around in their enormous tanks, the fish are also a picture of flourishing health. It’s feeding time, so TenBroeck throws a handful of food into the cluster of pink and white tilapia as the shimmery fish wriggle and jump toward it.

One of the unique qualities of Traders Hill is their impeccably clean facility. TenBroeck says that the farm is “like a hospital” in terms of their high standards for hygiene. One thing that helps is that the plants are not in soil. In fact, since there are no pesticides or dirt, there’s no need to wash the produce. It goes straight to packaging, and then it is distributed to stores and restaurants around the region. “What sets us apart is that we are considered the safest level of farm facility in the world,” she says.

Traders Hill Comes to Town

In the spirit of social entrepreneurship, Traders Hill has developed a non-profit arm, with the mission to forward sustainable agriculture through education and research. Wherever they put a farm, they want to support a scholarship program for students who hope to study aquaponics, permaculture, hydroponics, forestry or engineering.

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In addition, they recruited local educational institutions including Florida State College at Jacksonville to get involved. Traders Hill will partner with the downtown campus of FSCJ to build a facility in the urban core. One of the farm’s objectives, says TenBroeck, is to promote agriculture education, and having an operation at the college will allow students hands-on learning and opportunities for research. In addition to farming skills, students will also learn about the business of food distribution and social entrepreneurship. The idea is that the harvest can be sold to downtown restaurants, donated to the school food bank, or brought to the new public market that Groundwork Jacksonville is working to create right down the street.

“I think it will change the way we eat downtown,” TenBroeck says. “Because you will have a substantial food source right there. It will allow the urban gardening situation to explode.”

To learn more visit tradershillfarm.com