Carl Frost and Diane Cordeau have traveled a long way together. Their first major journey was an international sailing adventure where they discovered what their life’s work would be.
“We would stop in the Solomon Islands and the chiefs would greet us when we came ashore asking if we would like to go for kai kais, meaning gathering food,” Cordeau said. “We watched them grow vegetables in a very primitive way on coral. They were successful, and we thought, ‘We can do that.’ One thing led to another, and we decided that our future would be in farming. And now, every time there is some drama on the farm, we think about them,” she said.
Frost said they originally considered growing grapes. “I had studied viticulture as a hobby for a few years in the ‘90s, so we visited a lot of vineyards and were gearing up for that pursuit – probably overseas somewhere, Anyway, we ended up back in Florida after being offshore and I elected to pursue a horticulture degree, so I went back to school for about the fifth time,” he said.
Married in 1988, the two worked as lab technicians for the University of Florida’s Indian River Research and Education Center while Frost earned his bachelor of science degree. He was in citrus and Cordeau was in entomology.
As Frost finished his degree, the bought 40 acres about nine miles west of Interstate 95 in Martin County. It had been a citrus grove for decades. The couple decided to grow a whole spectrum of vegetables on the land, but not before several years of planning and testing the land and water.
“We finally got everything basically built and all the drainage completed in 2006, so we started buying equipment and began the vegetable crop with a just one small well and a gasoline pump. We did much of the work by hand and used a lot of compost on the sandy citrus soil.”
“That first crop was only about a half an acre, and we’ve been expanding every year,” Frost said. “Over the years, we’ve assembled most of the things we need to practice small-scale farming. We expanded our CSA program (community supported agriculture) into farmers markets, and we also now sell to restaurants.”
Of the 40 acres, they farm on only about seven. “We practice succession growing, where we plant multiple crops on the same bed,” Frost said. Those crops include greens of many types, cherry tomatoes, peppers, Calabasas and Seminole pumpkins, squash, eggplant and the list goes on. Many times they will partner with chefs and grow specialty vegetables to order.
The farm incorporates water conservation and surface water engineering features to prevent contaminants from entering rivers and the aquifer. Drainage is all on-site and consists of about one mile of ditches and two one-acre ponds built to retain several inches of rainfall. The vegetable-growing area is regularly laser adjusted with just a small slope for ‘sheet flow’ drainage of the raised bed system, and they use a pressurized drip irrigation system to minimize water usage.
“We use microjets for certain applications as well, because some of our greens need to be in a bed that’s nice and moist. A drip only does so much,” Frost said. “But we’re pretty frugal.”
If fact, at one point, the couple had been given permitted rights to a large amount of water. That proved to be unnecessary. “We only used about 20 percent of what we had been granted,” Frost said.
They also believe in recycling, having built much of the farm out of shipping containers. They’re used for workshops, storage, an office, a pump room and even a packing house. Only a small greenhouse was built from standard materials to provide a place to grow baby plants.
The couple have nothing but praise for the University of Florida and its extension service. “I’m a big Gator fan,” Frost said. “The extension service and the research services have been invaluable resources for us, and we’ve been applying their Best Management Practices on surface water and irrigation since the beginning,” he said. The university recently partnered with Kai Kai Farms building a prototype tunnel to learn how to improve its cost effectiveness.
“It’s the prototype that will become our future in protected agriculture. It’s like a giant hoop house,” he said. “We are progressing down the road to where we will have a hybridized farm where there’ll be a certain amount of acreage under plastic and then some out in the open. The problem is that some plants just don’t like the wind — like our pretty colored peppers.”
Cordeau loves all of her vegetables, but she confides she has her favorites. “I really like our specialty Chinese broccoli. Plus we grow about 25 kinds of lettuce, so when we take it to the market it makes for a beautiful, multi-colored display.” She’s also partial to kale, so much so that she’s known in some circles as Miss Kale.
Another aspect of Kai Kai that sets it apart from most Florida operations is that because the couple grow on a small scale and practice protected agriculture, the farm produces year-round. Most Florida crops are not grown in the heat of the summer. “That’s why we don’t need to use migrant workers,” Frost said. “Our workers are local residents, and we try very hard to give them as much work over the summer as possible. We may have to cut back on their hours slightly, but we do a lot of maintenance during the summer, so there’s always something happening. People like to eat in the summer, and the chefs want fresh food, so we make it happen.
“We are heavily dependent on our labor supply. They are wonderful people. They know our practices, so they’re part of the team. We really have no choice but to farm all year-round if we are going to grow the business,” he added.
So it’s a good thing that they got in all that sailing when they had the time.