Dr. Phillips Charities announced their 200-acre Packing District development last December, planned for western College Park, with an estimated economic impact of $41 million.

Since that time we’ve shared a few news stories concerning updated plans and their first official tenant, but we can now confirm that one of the largest pieces of the development puzzle is a planned 40-acre farm operated by 4 Rivers Smokehouse.

While construction is expected to last the next 10-15 years, we managed to get a Q&A with 4 Rivers founder, John Rivers, about his hush-hush farm project, that’s still in the early planning stages.

You’re currently in your due diligence period, weighing your options to buy or lease land from the City for a possible 4Roots farm and Agriculture Center in the upcoming Packing District development in Western College Park. How’s that going?

We will not be buying, but leasing the land from the City of Orlando who has been incredibly supportive of our vision of building a Farm and Agriculture Center to serve the local community. We’re working with a consultant and engineering team to determine if the site is able to support the demands of a farm and are remaining hopeful for a positive outcome.

I believe most of the 40-acres of the land are considered wetlands or cypress domes. Have your surveys discovered anything about the viability of growing there?

We are currently working with an environmental firm on an in-depth viability study of key aspects of the site such as soil quality and percentage of usable land in light of the wetlands and such.

4 Rivers has been engaged with community giving for years, through supporting local schools, charities, and civic organizations, or more recently through the 4R Foundation you launched in 2015. How does farming continue that mission? Does this come back to your background in the healthcare industry?

As we began to compare our areas of giving with the needs of the community we discovered a great need for education and access to local healthy produce in many areas; from students in our schools and the undernourished pockets in our community, to even the guests we serve at the restaurants. The food insecurity problem in Central Florida was of particular concern and ultimately, [our] motivation to get involved. We believe by building a model that connects the community, businesses, students, and families to locally grown produce we could help move the needle and make an impact in building and sustaining a healthier community.

Your 4Rivers Farm Project Partnership was just launched with Orange County Public Schools to help teach students how to grow their own food. Will there be an educational aspect to 4Roots as well? Or is the focus more on production for your 14 restaurant locations?

Actually, the primary focus of the project is first, education followed by access of fresh produce to the students and underserved areas of the community. Distribution into the restaurants falls behind these and is more of a benefit of the project then the focus. Long-term changes in a community begin with education. The 4Roots Farm has started with investments in OCPS and their CTE (Career and Technical Education) Programs – most specifically their Agriculture program.  We provided capital infrastructure, improvements, and development support for the Ag program at Ocoee High School and are now working to do the same at Edgewater High School.  Others wonderful organizations have aligned in our mission and provided support such as Florida Blue, the Kiwanis Foundation of Orlando, Massey Services, Dr. Phillips Charities, and the Martin Andersen- Gracia Andersen Foundation.

The larger 4Roots Farm and Agriculture Center will serve as a hub and training and education for students and farmers in both in-ground and hydroponic growing methods.  It will also serve as a resource center and gathering place for best practices, industry leaders, and collaborative philanthropic partnership endeavors.

I understand a part of the plan is to build a cooperative processing center. Can you tell me more about this? Including a possible location?

We’re excited to support local farmers by designing the 4Roots Processing Center as a co-op, creating the opportunity to connect locally grown produce with the demand we have created at our partner organizations. The processing center will create jobs and serve as a hub for small local farmers to do business with larger institutions that they could otherwise not reach due to access and scale limitations. We’re currently working to identify the location of the center and are doing so with similarly minded organizations that share a heart to transform and revitalize Orlando.

What other features are you hoping to include in this $35 million project? We’ve heard anything from a retail shop to a conference center.

Everything is still in discussion and consideration, however, our hope is to include components such as controlled and traditional farming, a test kitchen, farmers market, demonstration garden, urban farming lab, seedling nursery, classrooms, a conference center & resource library, and perhaps even a restaurant one day.

I understand this is still in the early phases of development for this project, but do you have an estimated timeline of how it will all play out?

Much work still needs to be done to determine if the site will support the needs of the Farm. However should all go well, we’re estimating it to be a 3 to 5-year project to complete all phases of the project.


Brendan O'Connor

Editor in Chief of Bungalower.com

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