The Ocean Going Farmer by Nick Halmos

Nick currently resides in Santa Cruz, California where he runs City Blooms and works to make quality, sustainably grown food accessible to an expanding population.  



In the fall of 2011, my fellow 11th Hour Racing teammate, Hugh Piggin and I departed from France aboard a Class 40 as competitors in the Transat Jaques Vabre. Over the course of 26 days at sea, we laid a 6000 mile track across the  Atlantic that exited the English Channel, wound south through the Azores, across the Atlantic to Puerto Rico, and a final 1000 mile sprint to Costa Rica. One of the things that set 11th Hour Racing’s entry apart is that our boat, the mighty Cutlass, carried the world’s first carbon fiber oceanic hydroponic system. This first iteration of the Cityblooms Aquatic Project was an effort to grow edible and nutritious produce in the harsh and unforgiving environment that is a shorthanded race boat.

city blooms box

The idea was quite elegant in its simplicity. Thanks to the incredible minds of Bernoulli and Newton, we know that pressure differentials are created as air flows across the surface of an airfoil, which can propel a boat through water without the use of hydro-carbons (Hoooray!!!).  As the vessel moves forward, water passing under the boat can turn the propeller of a hydro-generator. The resulting clean energy can power a desalinator to create fresh water. Take the water, add some seeds, wait 12 days, eat, and repeat from the beginning.

The point of this somewhat whimsical exercise was twofold.

  • First, to demonstrate that food production can be made so lightweight that we would place the equipment on a race boat. This attribute has broad implications to the field of rooftop urban agriculture
  • Second, to demonstrate that the technology currently exists to conduct sustainable agricultural operations in a place as inhospitable to terrestrial flora as the mid-Atlantic

The task of maintaining stocks of fresh produce on oceangoing vessels has plagued sailors for centuries. Until a few decades ago, the thought of fresh produce beyond the second or third day at sea was optimistic. 25 years of advancement in refrigeration has helped the situation, but only modestly. Quality fresh produce remains fantasy in most ports of call around the world, even if you can manage to keep it cold for a few days. The practices we sought to develop could be put to use to improve crew nutrition and environmental impact on any vessel that regularly puts to sea for more than a few days.

As with most things in life, a relatively simple theory presents complications when reduced to practice. Fortunately, the challenges encountered in our first attempts at oceanic farming are not insurmountable. What follows is a brief explanation about how we approached the problem, while incorporating some lessons we learned in the hopes that others will improve these techniques and share in turn.

Our first steps:

  • Create a waterproof “Green Box” (Thank you Goetz Composites!!!) that could be mounted on deck.
  • Use a clear polycarbonate lid with a simple solar powered ventilation fan
  • The location and construction of the box should be chosen so as to minimize salt-water intrusion
  • For operation in the tropics, a shade cloth will be necessary to reduce temperatures inside the box

As we learned to hard way, there is a very fine line between a ventilated hydroponic system and a non-ventilated solar oven.

In order to maximize agricultural output, we fabricated a germination/rooting box out of a shallow plastic bin to provide a cool, moist, place for the seeds to root before placement in direct sunlight.

At first, the game plan was to place dry seeds on piece of saturated burlap to start the germination process. However, it was soon discovered that with the pitching moment of the boat, we could not keep the seeds from rolling off the mat. Therefore, we began to sprout the seeds with a traditional sprouting process in the hopes that the irregular shape of a germinated seed would reduce the propensity to roll. For the initial germination, a commercially available “sprouting jar” or a water bottle with a screened lid to facilitate daily flushing will suffice.


Lessons learned the hard way:

  • Seeds are very difficult to clean out of the nooks and crannies of the bilge, they truly do get everywhere when spilled.
  •  The logical place to complete the daily flushing of the sprouting jar is the aft pulpit, keep a firm grip on the sprouting jar as a wayward wave could wash the whole experiment away, thus setting you back days.

Once the seeds have started to germinate and the tap roots are showing, they can be spread like paste upon a saturated mat in the rooting box. Although many different growing mediums are possible, sailors may prefer burlap due to its widespread availability and pack-ability. After 2 days in the rooting box, the seeds will set roots into the burlap and sent shoots skyward in search of light. This is the point when the mat should be placed in the box on deck, preferably in the evening when the temps are cooler.

It is important to ensure that the Green Box stays properly ventilated to control temperatures and that the growth medium stays saturated. While we chose manual watering, a simple automated (Arduino) watering system would not be difficult to fabricate for the technically inclined.

micro greens

While any number of crops could be grown with this method, micro greens are promising due to their inherent nutritional value, short growth time, and ability to store a lot of seeds in a small package. We experimented with clover, broccoli, and arugula in various mix ratios. Pea shoots would also be a good cultivar. With a little practice, an ocean going farmer should be able to produce 1/3 lb of fresh greens per square foot of Green Box per week.

The Ethics of Why: By Anderson Reggio

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When one thinks of the traditional college experience, their thoughts are often filled with images of drunken men hoisting empty kegs above their heads and swarms of coeds cheering them on.  Rarely does the collegiate image include solar powered trash compactors, sensor operated water bottle refill stations, and students frustrated with the lack of efficiently located recycling containers on their campus.  This is a daily experience for the modern college student at Saint Joseph’s University; an individual focused on truly trying to make the world a better place through their actions and words.

As an alumni of Saint Joe’s, that mantra of conservation and sustainability has stuck with me and I find an increasing desire to see some of the “best practices” I have been taught being put to action.  With organizations such as 11th Hour Racing leading the charge, I think a difference is starting to be made as more and more people are seeing the need for positive change.  Recently, I had the pleasure of returning back to my university in a unique way and saw that this focus on bettering the world is truly taking hold not just in the sailing world, but among all different types of people.

Each March, when most college students escape the confines of their education for beaches, bikinis, and booze, over ten percent of the student body at Saint Joe’s piles into vans and heads towards the Appalachian Mountains for a week’s worth of service work.  This student led program is now in its twentieth running with nearly five-hundred kids taking part this year.  These students are spread among sixteen different communities in the Eastern Appalachian Mountains, working on everything from new home construction to old home repair, from working in soup kitchens to working on farm.  As an alumni, the university asks me to join a group each year and bring to the table a real world perspective.  Obviously if they’re asking someone who spends their life immersed in the world of competitive sailing, a reexamination of their definition of “real world” is quite necessary, however, they ask and I continue to join; mainly because of these students.  Their energy, their focus, and their passion for change is refreshing and inspiring.  My role is simple: make sure no one dies.

This year, our group traveled to a small village called Floyd, Virginia to work upon an organic farm called Riverstone.  Located twenty minutes from the closest town and an immeasurable distance from the nearest stoplight, Riverstone boasts sixty plus acres of vegetable harvests, sheep, chickens, and donkeys (you have to keep the coyotes at bay somehow).  Purchased nine years ago by the owner of a local lighting manufacturer and his wife, Woody and Jackie transformed overgrown woodland into a sea of rolling hills filled with fresh food produced in a sustainable manner.   New gravity fed wells have been dug for irrigation and a wood gasification burner installed to heat the home in which we stay.  The local wrangler, Jason, works the woods to harvest logs with his horses to feed the heating system in the cold winter months.  He promotes himself as a “biological woodsman,” engaging in the practice of restorative forestry.  He and his children have made a name for themselves locally for their use of the Suffolk Punch horses to draft wood in a way where the only impact is the walking trails they leave behind.  In typical Appalachian style, the stories are many and the lessons are rich as they described to us the conscious decisions they make every day to minimize their impact on the land.  They are the embodiment of refusal to make moral sacrifice in the name of the bottom line and active in sharing their motives to anyone who will listen.  As Jason tells his many apprentices, “if you come here with the ethics of why, we will teach you the skills of how.”photo (6) photo (2) sustain floyd

Most mornings with the group are spent performing various farm chores, making oatmeal, and dealing with the joys of twenty-five people sharing two bathrooms and limited hot water (look for our hashtag #letitmellow now trending on Twitter).  On one entertaining morning, we met Gunter, a world-renowned honey bee researcher who runs his orchard and apiary in a sustainable way and is working hard to resurrect the honey bee in the local ecosystem after years of annihilation.  He, like many who have chosen to call Floyd home, have brought new world, “hippie” ideas of sustainability, organic, local, and green with them to their Appalachian brethren.  Sustain Floyd is an organization that has recently come to prominence in the area.  Founded upon the idea that many local farmers are struggling due to their crops being bought and shipped off by large corporate entities, Sustain Floyd is attempting to work to keep things local.  Additionally, in recent years, crop sharing has become increasingly popular.  The idea of buying local has taken off like a rocket as people have jumped aboard the train supporting Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSA).  By purchasing local goods from a farm that one supports you can develop a one on one relationship with your farmer and have a true stake in where your money goes.  Sustain Floyd works with a variety of CSAs in the area as well as farms like Riverstone and people like Gunter to keep the food local, fresh, and produced through green practices.  They are currently in the process of procuring funds to build a food production facility and a dairy processing plant which they hope will enable them to keep the local agricultural economy running.

The essence of Floyd, Virginia is community; the strength of people coming together here is astounding.  What is more astounding is that, in an area of our country often stigmatized for being incredibly impoverished and having a populace yearning to leave, Floyd is growing (population up ten percent in the last decade) and thriving with a communal approach to everything.  A sense of “we’re all in this together” is in the air and unmistakable.  Don’t get me wrong, Floyd is still incredibly poor.  With a mean per capita income of around twenty thousand dollars and a poverty rate in the mid teens, there is no doubt a need for services.  The local food bank is growing at an alarming rate as nearly fifteen percent of students in the county are on food stamps.  Luckily there are organizations such as Sustain Floyd and Riverstone Farm who are actively engaged in a green lifestyle and working hard to bring jobs to the area.

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Every year the people of the Appalachian region are fascinated by the world of yachting and all that it encompasses.  The consistency of the question “you do WHAT for a living?” is quite humbling and serves as a reminder that the oceans upon which we get to play and the experiences we get to have as sailors are rarely seen by a majority of the world.  It also exemplifies the idea that working for your passion really isn’t work at all.  To spend the week witnessing green practices in action proves that mantra to be true yet again.  The students from Saint Joe’s and the people we met in Floyd all considered working towards the betterment of our earth a passion and regarded the labor they were doing not as “work,” but rather as their necessary contribution.  If this utopian society of Carhartts and Tie-dye can sprout up in the middle of the Appalachian mountains with little money but endless drive, it should serve as an inspiration that we all can do more.