1978 was the year that would forever change Robert’s perspective in terms of plants he was using as a landscape professional. It was the year of his first design-build contract: a natural habitat for wildlife, in the form of a massive aviary, built on a private estate and destined to be a home for rare birds and reptiles. At the time, the term “organic” was not part of everyday vernacular, ��and there was rampant overuse of organophosphates within the plant industry. The nutritionist for the project was obviously concerned that birds foraging on the foliage, and building nests with it, would be exposed to residual chemicals that would prove dangerous or even lethal to their small, vulnerable bodies.
Every plant and flower slated to be installed–some of which were assembled from growers around the Southeast and others which were grown at Robert’s recently purchased wholesale nursery–had to be leached of all synthetic fertilizers, and stripped of existing hard leafy foliage in order to induce new clean leaf growth.
As Robert’s business evolved into designing and building theme park and zoo habitats over the years, the core principles of growing and maintaining healthy, clean crops remained a priority for him. He strenuously avoided using any pesticide, fungicide, or synthetic that could potentially cause defects in animal offspring or imminent death of the enclosed wildlife. From the beginning, he grew all habitat-bound plants using organic principles. This led to Tornello Landscape becoming major suppliers to Bush Gardens Great Primate exhibits and others to follow. Soon, clients around the country–from Omaha’s Henry Dorley Zoo to New York’s Bronx Zoo–recognized our commitment to food safety and routinely specified our plants and trees for their projects. In the early 1990s,Tornello Landscape began producing “plants for browse” (live food) and habitats for the pandas on lease from China. We were visited by the growers and nutritional teams from Bejing Botanic Gardens and became an approved supplier for their habitats. We again found ourselves involved with a project in Washington DC: the National Zoo Asia Trail, for which we provided our plants to The Smithsonian.
Our work with bamboo and tropicals took us all around the globe; accordingly, when the world’s economy took a serious turn for the worse, so too did three years worth of contracted projects. We found ourselves being value-engineered at every turn: projects shrunk or were cancelled outright, and Florida’s plant industry sustained some harsh blows. Many growers were forced to close their doors.
We opted instead to evolve and change.
3 Boys Farm was the logical outgrowth of our vast experience with producing healthy, containerized habitat browse. It seemed so obvious, so natural: we would grow in order to feed ourselves. Moreover, we were committed to continuing to provide work for our 22 employees—at that economically-stressed time, there was virtually no chance they would find re-employment elsewhere. Our crew worked daily for several long years building the greenhouses, solar arrays, and massive water capture and distribution systems required to run the farm. This was the groundwork for the much-upgraded structures you see today at 3 Boys Farm.
The next steps were the ones we’d been told would be impossible: formulating and testing an organic product, liquid feed, that would become the first of its kind. Michael and Robert both worked tirelessly toward that goal, and the results–USDA-certification for the totally unique, high-tech, sustainable and eco-minded hydroponic farm–are recognized today as nothing short of ground-breaking.
In the process of testing everything–preparing protocols for worse-case-scenario grid failures and other unimaginable misfortunes that every good farmer must plan for–we learned, well in advance of selling our first product, how to be the best grower-and-production management team in the country. All the produce grown during our development years was donated: to food banks, shelters, and many local families.
As President and General Manager of 3 Boys Farm, Robert stresses the importance of teamwork. But he also emphasizes the need to keep an eye on the horizon, always, as bringing the future into the moment is what makes 3 Boys Farm a true environmental leader.