Researcher selects Siesta for innovative project, but receives opposition from county officials
By Ned Steele
Move over, farm-to-table. The next hot dining trend may be bay-to-table, if environmental entrepreneur Todd Kleperis succeeds at his ambitious goal.
Inspired by floating farms he saw in Asia, area resident Kleperis has made Siesta Key the testing ground for what he hopes will one day hatch into an international movement: sea-based agriculture that simultaneously produces fresh water and puts awesome foods on our plates.
Kleperis has devised an odd-looking contraption, that vaguely resembles a miniature outdoor shower stall, and has dropped it into the waters off Siesta Key Circle, near the north bridge. There it sits, desalinating the water it’s in and using it to grow … mushrooms. Which he then sells to posh restaurants.
If it sounds quixotic, hear Kleperis out:
“Traditional agriculture is broken,” he says, citing farm soil depletion that drains unhealthy fertilizers into the Gulf where they can cause red tide. “I believe we need to do something to save the planet.
“We’d like to show we can grow anything in the ocean.”
And make no mistake, Kleperis is thinking big. He’s currently in the midst of a $2 million round of financing, seeking investors looking for a side helping of profits alongside the environmental benefits of sea-based agriculture.
It’s not an entirely new premise, but the OPod, as Kleperis calls it, takes aquaponics to a new level. The device is solar powered, and the water it desalinates cools the growing plants. So, there’s no need for the air conditioning or lighting often associated with vertical farming.
While it’s just a single pod sitting in the bay today, there is room on the waterfront property Kleperis owns for 10. The current pilot pod is a modest 3 feet by 5 feet, but future models may be as large as 10-by-10. And that’s just the beginning of his vision. This can, pardon the pun, mushroom into a global environmentally friendly business within a few years, Kleperis says.
There’s one cloud on the horizon. Sarasota County, thinking more locally than globally, has declared the project a violation of zoning. While Kleperis maintains the OPod is a boat, the county considers it a structure. And that is a problem because, the county says, “Agriculture is not a permitted principal use” at the OPod’s otherwise undeveloped site. It has labeled the project and the OPod “unpermitted,” and is threatening to haul Kleperis into court. Fines could hit as high as $500 a day for multiple violations.
After a June 17 enforcement date came and went, the county Planning and Development Services said: “Staff will be preparing an affidavit of violation,” which is a formal charging instrument requesting a hearing before the special magistrate.
“We have never been out of any compliance issue as we are a boat registered in the state of Florida,” Kleperis retorted. “We have gone under power on our vessel to the lot next door and have wondered why code compliance is even involved in a maritime issue. Code compliance has zero to do with maritime boats.”
For now, the mushrooms continue to grow unimpeded and happily in the OPod, anticipating the day they will end up on diners’ plates, as they have in such establishments as Kojo, Selva Grill, and the Ritz Carlton.
Why mushrooms? Because they are simple plants that don’t need a lot of light to thrive and, producing a high yield, are a good starter crop. But, Kleperis is testing hot peppers, and may try bivalves next. “In the future we could grow anything on the pod,” he said.
Kleperis has developed a connection to Jean Cannon, whose oyster-raising mini-reef water reclamation project has been documented in the Siesta Sand.
“His experiments push the boundaries,” Cannon said. “The technology is amazing. He is taking salt out of the water. Sarasota needs these kinds of solutions. It is a growing community, and our water supply is challenged.”
More fresh water sites in the bay, she adds, could draw more visiting manatees to our shores.
Cannon hopes the zoning dispute will be resolved: “It would be a shame to lose Todd to another state or country,” she said.
What brought Kleperis, a serial entrepreneur who has been involved in a range of ventures, including the field of financing logistics for the cannabis industry, to select Siesta Key as his site in the first place? The most normal of reasons, it turns out: “My wife got a job here. We moved here about five years ago,” he said.
And let’s not forget an important question. The mushrooms — how do they taste?
“They are astounding.” Cannon enthusiastically said.