Hobby Grows Into Thriving Business for McAlexanders
November 14, 2011 by Gwen Break
South Walton is known for its quirky artists and unique way of doing things so it was no surprise to find a commercial hydroponic farm in the middle of Point Washington.
Blending in with the rest of the surrounding forest and fauna, MacFarms is a family operated business but according to Andy McAlexander it is his wife Jennifer, “Jen,” Alexander who is the boss.
“It is her business. She runs it. I am not allowed to contract sales or anything,” Andy said with a laugh. Andy works full-time for E.F. San Juan as a sales representative but helps out when he can.
The actual farming process is done in a tented area at the front of the oversized lot. There, dozens of plants stacked four and five pots high in neat rows grow naturally without a speck of dirt. It is a growing process the couple learned from Stan Meadows, who was growing vegetables for Stinky’s Fish Camp, a SoWal restaurant, in the same fashion.
“We use coconut core,” said Jen. “It is the outer husk but there are thousands of other ways of doing it.”
Needed nutrients for each kind of plant is infused in water, sent by plastic tubing and allowed to drip onto each stack of plants. They refer to the process as “growing naturally.”
“We grow only heirloom tomatoes,” said Jen. “Some of our seeds are from species more than 200 years old.”
MacFarm also grows peppers and herbs and 20 species of greens, including leaf lettuce, arugula and spinach. One of the varieties of pepper cultivated is done so from seeds sent to the McAlexanders by a family in Hungary. “We send them our tomato seeds in exchange,” said Jen.
Next year Jen is hoping to expand her greens list to include head lettuce, such as bib and romaine, as well as expand her distribution operations.
The McAlexanders’ current location is the second one for the farm. The original location, which they began in 2009, was next to their home and they simply outgrew. The couple moved their growing operation to a lot they had previously purchased with the idea of building a home on it. Both are located in Point Washington.
“We like Point Washington,” said Andy. “Everyone minds their own business and yet it’s a community.”
Currently, MacFarms provides eight local restaurants with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and other vegetables when each crop is available and at its peak.
“We are blessed with having relationships with, in my opinion the best chefs on 30A. The niche we are trying to fill is getting these world class chefs a local, great tasting item to make their menu work,” said Jen. “We grow specialized items and we grow what we grow because we’re good at it.”
“Our lettuce is cut the day it is delivered to the customer,” she said. “Most lettuce found in supermarkets can be up to 11 days old. It is cultivated to have a long shelf life, she explained. “Ours will last only a few days. Our tomatoes may have a four-day shelf life. They are picked at the peak of their ripeness.”
All orders are customized and personally delivered to a predetermined location, usually a commercial location in South Walton. The McAlexanders do not sell from either of their locations as restricting access helps keep their crops pristine and free of contaminants. They also sell virgin olive oil produced by a friend in California.
“My best friend growing up bought 20-something-thousand trees in Italy in the ‘late 90s, and after they sat in quarantine in Miami for six months he got them out to his ranch in California. He bought these old granite stone presses and has been making this extra virgin juice and it just keeps getting better and better and better every year,” Andy said. “It takes about 80 pounds of olives to make a gallon of oil (using this cold press method).”
Two of the restaurants that buy the oil from the McAlexanders label it as their own and resell it as part of their marketing plan.
Last year, because of the downturn in the economy due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the McAlexanders had to dispose of three barrels of the liquid treasure. “We lost a bit of money there,” said Andy, “but nobody wants to buy oil in the middle of an oil spill.”
Jen says it was hubby Andy’s idea to grow commercially.
“He grew up on the Mississippi Delta and I grew up in Winter Park, Fla. We moved here 11 years ago and we’ve always had a family garden. We tried hydroponic growing to have better control over our growing environment.”
In her words, she wanted a tomato to taste like a tomato and not like the hothouse lookalikes that have been genetically engineered for commercial production.
The McAlexanders have two children, Andrew, 7, and Audrey, 4. The children have an area surrounded by 900 feet of wood fencing in which to roam and play.
“They have a built-in BMX track,” Andy pointed out. “They ride around the fence.”
The McAlexanders have taken other measures to make their workspace kid friendly by installing a small air-conditioned kids’ office where they can nap, watch TV or play games. There is the proverbial dirt pile and an assortment of outdoor toys and areas to be discovered.
They began growing crops hydroponically four years ago and started their business two years ago.
“We do this because we love doing it,” said Jen.
Emeril’s Florida, a show on the Cooking Channel, highlights the Sunshine State through the eyes of Emeril on-location with a focus on food, cooking, events and activities.
This week features local farmer Jen McAlexander, owner of Mac Farms in Santa Rosa Beach! Throughout the series, Emeril will travel Florida and visit the state’s top restaurants and resorts,also preparing some of his favorite recipes, which often will feature some of the best Gulf Coast seafood Florida has to offer. Read More >