The giant dump truck, loaded with soil, rumbles up West Coast Aqua Farms' long driveway — usually smooth dirt, but now just mud after days and days of showers. The truck raises up its bed and inches forward; loam rushes out the back, and the rear door collapses against its frame with a bone-rattling bang. I may be standing in the middle of North Port rural suburbia (check that mega-mansion right next door), but West Coast is open for business this Saturday, like it is every Saturday, and its customers need a stable driveway to pull up on.
Every square inch here seems put to good use. West Coast is a fully integrated aquaponic farm, meaning water is carried from enormous seafood tanks and a pond, filtered, then circulated through a complex network of plastic piping that drips the water down onto a wide range of sprouting vegetables. West Coast grows "a little bit of everything," owner Cindy Amaro tells me: broccoli, radishes, lettuce, carrots, cauliflower, squash, arugula, herbs. The farm isn't certified organic, but uses no chemical sprays and no genetically modified seeds.
The waste from the tilapia circling the pond out front and from the Australian redclaw crawfish out back is used as fertilizer. Only 3 acres large, West Coast cranks out as much food as a traditional farm can get out of 20 acres, roughly 150,000 crops, Amaro says.
West Coast has been up and running for three years now, but the company's about to take a big leap, opening a standalone seafood and vegetable market in Venice this Thursday. That explains why Cindy's husband, Noel Amaro, isn't around today. He's at the Tamiami Trail storefront, making sure every last detail is ready to go for the grand opening. "We're doing everything ourselves," Cindy says.
As of now, a solid percentage of West Coast's food is shipped out of state; Cindy says the store will allow the company to keep its products as local as possible. She mentions the heavy amount of out-of-state (indeed, out-of-country) food found at our local farmers' markets, and that Venice in particular is in need of local purveyors.
Cindy touts the wonders of the redclaw — its flesh sweeter than saltwater lobster and lower in sodium and cholesterol. We walk from her dirt driveway around to the back, where the redclaws' enormous low tanks sprawl every which way. Cindy takes a small net and hunts around in the water for one to show me. Her children, Ruben, Cristina and Carolina, scurry around, looking for critters, too. They pull up bundles of PVC where the crawfish like to hang out and lay eggs.
Eventually we find a few full-grown ones. They're mean-looking — blue, spiky crustaceans much larger than the small red varieties I used to snag from the Deschutes River as a kid. They'll nip you, Cindy warns. I believe it. I'll take mine steamed, thanks.
West Coast Aqua Farms is located at 6442 Malton St., North Port, and is open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. every Sat. Its new storefront, which opens Thurs., Aug. 8, will be located at 2189 Tamiami Trail S., Venice, and will be open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat. For more information about either location, call 941-426-7921 or visit westcoastaquafarms.com.
This is the 29th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at email@example.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.