Veggies in Space
Three decades ago, Ed Rosenthal was working out of his Sarasota garage, touting a new fertilizer he believed would revolutionize Florida agriculture. He never imagined he would change the world.
The polymer expert developed a method of cultivating crops that would ultimately transcend the terrestrial realm, allowing astronauts to grow fresh produce in space.
“In 30 years, we took Florida from being so far behind to being so far forward,” Ed Rosenthal says.
Florida, and the rest of the universe. In 1982, along with his wife, Betty, Ed Rosenthal began building Sarasota’s Florikan—now an award-winning agri-tech business that annually manufactures more than $30 million in fertilizers that are sold to growers nationwide and exported worldwide. Last year, the operation went astral when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected Florikan’s Nutricote controlled-release fertilizer for a vegetable plant growth system installed in the International Space Station. NASA was looking for a sustainable food source for its space travelers. Florikan provided the perfect fit. The Rosenthals were awed.
“When we first started this company, everything in terms of agriculture in Florida was really backwards. The way growers were applying fertilizers was so inefficient—the whole method, it was so old-fashioned. But Ed had a vision,” Betty Rosenthal says. “He came up with some unbelievable improvements in growing practices, including concepts of water conservation, finding a fertilizer that would be applied not six times or eight times a year but only once or twice a year per crop—a true controlled-release fertilizer rather than a water-soluble fertilizer. It was a real improvement for the Florida growers.”
It would take three years before the Rosenthals developed a large enough customer base that they fully outgrew their garage. During that time, Ed Rosenthal recalls transporting tons of fertilizer to Florida nurseries in his 1975 Pontiac Grand Ville, as the over-exhausted front wheels bounced along the road. The Rosenthals visited Japan, Holland and Israel, where they learned about different growing technologies, such as Israel’s brilliant drip irrigation system. They expanded their thinking, brought cuttingedge ideas to Florida and put the state ahead of the agricultural curve.
Florikan developed a technology that could exactly control the timing of nutrients being released to plants regardless of external conditions like cold, heat or even a lack of gravity. Because of this, NASA chose a variation of the company’s Nutricote fertilizer to be used in experiments on the Space Station, where astronauts are growing red romaine lettuce to test how plants thrive in space. NASA also approved the use of Florikan’s fertilizer for a leafy green and dwarf tomato growth initiative.
“We were honored that NASA, after years of extensive research, selected Florikan fertilizers to be used to grow vegetables for our astronauts on the space station and long-range space f lights,” Ed Rosenthal says. “This is a significant achievement for a family owned, Florida-based company.”
Florikan’s expansion may be benefiting the great beyond but the results are also being felt right here at home. The Rosenthals’ son, Eric, currently runs Florikan, which has a Lakewood Ranch operating base and about 80 employees. Florikan is planning to create additional jobs at its new plant in Hardee County, which is partly being built with an economic development grant. With Florikan in the mix, Florida and the rest of the universe are growing greener by the minute.
“It has been marvelous, and continues to be a wonderful journey for Betty and I, as partners in all respects. We are so very grateful to our customers who constantly supported us over 35 years with their loyalty,” Ed Rosenthal says. “I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’d still do the same thing, no matter what the risks. You only have one life to live. You have to live it ethically.”
Who knew a family-run, Sarasota-based business would become such a global (and galactic) game changer? Florikan’s work was so innovative that it earned the National Society of Professional Engineers’ National New Product Award and the opportunity to collaborate with NASA’s Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program.
After years of research, NASA’s Veggie Vegetable Production System launched the International Space Station, and plants were grown on orbit in this hardware for the first time, according to Dr. Gioia Massa, the team lead on NASA’s Veggie Science team. Lettuce plants were grown in plant pillows (space “grow bags”), which contained baked ceramic mixed with Florikan’s Nutricote 18-6-8 formula. Nutricote was selected after rigorous testing with different fertilizer and media combinations, Massa says.
But this is just one of Florikan’s achievements. In 35 years, Florikan has received 13 major awards for ethical business practices, product innovation, job creation and environmental leadership. Some of the highlights include the 2005 and 2008 Environmental Protection Agency Gulf Guardian Award, and the 2004 National Society of Professional Engineers’ Most Innovative New Product of the Year for the United States Award. Florikan was also named “A Hero of Hurricane Andrew” for launching the relief effort to help nursery customers in Homestead, Fla., rebuild their businesses after the devastating 1991 storm.