At the Market: Get to Know Aqua Organics
By Diego De Jesus
It feels like a fever dream for Michael Musoke and his wife, Miriam Shapiro-Musoke, of how far Aqua Organics has come along with the Lakeland Farmers Market.
Aqua Organics was one of the original dozen or so vendors to open up shop when the market was in a parking lot across the street from the then Crispers along South Florida in 2008. At the now-brimming Lakeland Farmers Market, they intentionally choose the shaded corner of Munn Park across from Harry’s to preserve their product’s notable quality.
Aqua Organics has been selling its signature produce by incorporating aquaponics farming techniques to fertilize its crop.
The aquaponic farm is owned by Michael Musoke and his wife, Miriam Shapiro-Musoke. They’ve grown Aqua Organics into a growing powerhouse that sells produce in farmers markets around Florida from Winter Haven to Tampa with no sign of a downtrend.
They grow sustainable produce using soil-free aquaculture to fertilize their vegetables, utilizing the symbiotic relationship between fish and plants. The fish, tilapia in their case, provides water with the nutrients needed to thrive while the plants filtrate the water.
Their signature product is lettuce, growing seven species on their five-acre off-grid farm in Polk City, just north of Salt Lake. They also grew other greens, namely, celery, kale, cucumbers and herbs such as basil. In the past, they also grew fruit seasonally.
“Fortunately for me, my mom invested basically in me,” Michael says. “She bought this property when I was graduating from the university because she saw my passion, how I wanted to be a farmer, and I didn’t have other resources.”
Michael heard about aquaponic farming from a newspaper article while studying aerospace physics at the University of Florida and fell in love with the idea. Three days later, he changed his major from aerospace engineering to business and agriculture.
His goal was to feed people, with a background traveling around the globe with nonprofit organizations and building aquaponic systems in countries like Haiti. In 2007, he was a Union Nations representative for his church and was able to learn more about food sustainability, trying to be a producer and teach people how to feed themselves.
“Aquaponics is really brilliant because it produces not only vegetables, but it produces a protein source,” Michael says. “So, you’re able to maximize your space for a balanced diet.”
“My wife is the one that’s taken over the operation of the business. I was the brains behind it, and she’s turned it into a very successful thing,” Michael continued.
Along the way, they’ve met people who’ve moved out to their farm to work and have stayed for varied amounts of time. Some of their farmhands were previously homeless and worked on their farm for several years. They imparted their wisdom to Michael regarding subjects like plumbing and horticulture.
“I’ve sold to restaurants before and, and they’ve always been impressed that they can hold my lettuce for a couple of weeks as opposed to stuff that they buy that goes back in a couple of days from like a big box store or a big distributor,” Michael says. “So I’ve had nothing but rave reviews about the quality.”
Lettuce normally grows in 65 days, but aquaponics brings that number down to 45 days with a sweeter taste, larger size, and longer shelf-life. They pride themselves in providing organically grown aquaponic produce. Aqua Organics utilizes clean growing practices but does not have certified organic products.
Aquaponics was the method for bringing its signature produce to its booths, but it wouldn’t have come to fruition without creating a mini-home that says to its customers welcome.
“Miriam and her team do an excellent job of making the venue very inviting. It’s usually set up with nice wooden baskets, and it’s a very well-put-together space. It’s inviting, it’s comfortable, and everyone loves asking my wife for different recipe suggestions for cooking their food. And we don’t. I think we’ve just done a very good job at just being people.”