Seeds of Change
A St. Petersburg couple converts an eyesore property into an urban farm on less than one acre.
On a drab, industrial street in the shadows of St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field, an oasis of leafy greens is flourishing. It has taken root not on sprawling acres outdoors, but inside 20 former shipping containers just west of downtown. You could drive past Brick Street Farms and never have any inkling of the operation inside — in fact, you might not notice it at all.
When Shannon O’Malley and husband Brad Doyle bought the one-third acre site in 2016 for $125,000, it had no utilities or running water, just dirt covered with 60 years’ worth of buried cars and boats, tires and rusted storage drums, but the couple envisioned a way to create a better business model for growing produce with cost-effective production.
From the outside, their containers — modified by Brick Street Farms and stacked on two levels — could pass for storage units. Inside, however, they house high-tech growing centers for 12 types of lettuce, three kinds of kale, rainbow Swiss chard, baby bok choy and more than 18 varieties of microgreens and herbs.
You won’t find the crops sprouting from soil. Brick Street Farms is strictly a hydroponic operation — free of pesticides, bugs or animal products. In fact, Brick Street uses two types of hydroponics, proprietary systems devised by O’Malley and Doyle that are especially good in tight quarters.
One is called NFT (nutrient film technique), featuring a shallow stream of water containing all nutrients required for plant growth. It circulates between the growing channels or troughs and the nutrient reservoir or tank.
The other is the Flood and Drain System, in which plants develop and thrive in a “growing tray” that is regularly flooded with a nutrient-rich, water-based solution. After a short period of flooding, the solution is allowed to drain so that the medium in which the plants are growing can dry.
The techniques allow Brick Street Farms to produce the equivalent of more than 68 acres of produce on their small urban footprint in its souped-up containers.
How elaborate are the containers? Consider that the average cost of one — depending on the water system and the special lighting that helps the produce flourish — can cost from $73,000 to $192,000, including building material and labor.
“This isn’t a farmers market producing some tomatoes and peppers; it’s mass food production in the middle of a city,” O’Malley says. “And because we are direct to consumer and direct to wholesale, we are literally able to reach people in a different way than other urban agricultural institutions. In that way, we’re disrupting the entire urban agricultural mindset that you have to use a grocery store for distribution.”
Recycled rainwater collected in a large vat is used to grow the greens. While Brick Street uses roughly 2,000 gallons of water per month, traditional agriculture uses nearly 30,000 gallons a month per acre.
“We wanted to figure out not only how to grow things, but to grow things with less water and less energy usage and how to be directly connected from the farm to our customers,” O’Malley says. “We didn’t want to use a middleman or distributors. And because we started on such a tight budget, we needed to figure out how to grow extraordinary amounts of produce with very little resources.”
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, O’Malley majored in business finance at the University of Pittsburgh and earned a master’s in science and a master’s in information science from Carlow University. Wanting a change from the cold winters after graduating, she relocated to Siesta Key in 2006 with no real plans. She moved to Tampa in 2008 for work and into the apartment complex where Doyle lived. “We casually crossed paths many times,” she says, “And finally, on Christmas Day 2011, we were both running on Bayshore Boulevard, where he stopped me and asked me out on our first date. We’ve been together ever since.”
They married in 2015. By then, O’Malley was senior project manager for Duke Energy’s Smart Grid. Doyle worked as IT delivery lead at the utility, modernizing metering systems. In their spare time, they collaborated on a hydroponic farming project.
“My thought was that humans can always do better,” O’Malley recalls. Utilizing their expertise in energy management and conservation, they tinkered in their garage with small hydroponic systems. They practiced with various methods and developed a proprietary model.
Once they were ready, O’Malley and Doyle bought the junk yard located in a growing arts district and craft brewery hub. She left Duke Energy to run the project, while he remained with the company, working weekends with O’Malley to clean up the site, paving the way for their dream.
To put their business plan into action, they began designing their own climate-controlled containers — equipping them with their specially devised lighting and cooling systems and with greens and herbs sprouting in growing trays. They started with five. “They’re 100% Brick Street Farms intellectual property,” O’Malley says of the containers. “And we have three patents underway for all designs and engineering.”
They knew they eventually needed to upgrade and expand on their unassuming site to accommodate a larger operation. So, in 2019, they leased a nearby warehouse as a temporary home, hauling their containers — which by then totaled 16 — several blocks away.
Things were looking up. But just as construction on their site was about to begin in 2020, the pandemic hit — and all their hopes and hard work were suddenly jeopardized.
In 14 days, O’Malley says, they lost 98% of their business. “Almost 100% of our business was restaurants and hotels and hospitality, and everything shut down,” she recalls. “So here we are with 16 containers worth of product, and all of our orders ceased overnight.”
To survive, they altered their production strategy and approached Publix about carrying Brick Street Farms greens. Within 30 days, their produce was in 400 Publix locations, and for nearly 18 months, they sold almost exclusively to the grocery chain.
During that time, O’Malley gave up her salary, and the couple used funds earmarked for construction to pay more than 30 employees. They didn’t have to let any workers go and were later able to award pay raises and cover 100% of health insurance premiums.
Brick Street continued to operate a small, onsite market, allowing customers to shop for produce or have it delivered.
Gradually, as businesses reopened, O’Malley and Doyle began targeting restaurants and wholesale hospitality again.
Meanwhile, rising prices of supplies sent their construction budget from $3 million to $5 million over eight months.
The Brick Street Farms hub opened in November 2022. It now has some 90 accounts. Partners include restaurants such as the Naked Farmer chain and Oxford Exchange in Tampa, and the Don CeSar and Vinoy resorts in St. Petersburg.
The couple also are eyeing expansion into Orlando and Miami, as well as joint ventures and co-branding with hotel chains. The plan is to set up hubs wherever their partners are located.
“Brad and I designed Brick Street Farms’ model to be extremely scalable, replicable and flexible,” O’Malley says. “And that’s what we’re really excited about. It can sell wholesale, to grocery stores or direct to consumers. And it can be placed in any city — in the middle of the city — on a very small lot.” A lot that, in Brick Street’s case, harvests 25% of each farm container every week and an average of 4,000 to 5,000 pounds per week of all products combined. That equals an average of 18,000 pounds per month and about 216,000 pounds per year.
“We still have room to improve those numbers and increase our harvest weight,” O’Malley says. “We expect to surpass 20,000 pounds a month by the end of 2023.”
A Growing Shift
“Especially since the pandemic, with all the emphasis on supply-chain disruptions, and some of the hoarding that happened early on, there’s been a renewed emphasis on producing food locally and regionally,” says David Himmelgreen, a University of South Florida professor in the Department of Anthropology and the director of the Center for Advancement of Food Security and Healthy Communities.
Urban farms, he says, help small businesses thrive and increase the value of the land in use.
“If they’re reasonable in cost and accessible, urban farms make a big difference,” he adds. “Like other places in the country, there is an increased focus on the local food system here. And I like the process Brick Street Farms is using — with all the things they are doing in terms of nutritional value, use of organic fertilizer and quality.”
Brick Street Farms
THE OPERATION: Brick Street Farms sells through three channels: Bulk wholesale, grocery wholesale and direct-to-consumer retail. Its profit margin can range from less than 7% up to 90%, depending on the sales channel and the product.
A LOT OF LETTUCE: The company averages 18,000- plus pounds of produce per month and 216,000-plus pounds per year.
THE PRODUCE: It grows an array of lettuce, kale, microgreens, herbs and more in 20 “farm” containers and has another six containers it uses for production and retail.