EAST LAKE WEIR, Fla. — Brooklyn Mickell's career in the U.S. Marine Corps came to an abrupt halt in August 2013, when he survived a harrowing accident at Camp Pendleton, California, not long before he was to ship to Afghanistan.
Even before that, he had begun looking into a means of earning a living beyond his military service, one he is now pursuing full-time in Marion County.
Mickell (pronounced "Michael") recently opened Soul Crop, an aquaponics farming operation through which he grows and sells herbs and greens not far from the shores of Lake Weir at 14831 SE 135th St.
Mickell's is a closed-loop farming system: He raises some 300 blue tilapia in a tank and pumps their waste through a filtration system. There, beneficial bacteria convert ammonia into nitrogen, which feeds the plants. Gravity then takes the water filtered clean back to the fish tank.
In Soul Crop's greenhouse, ready for sale now are herbs like fennel, dill, cilantro and chives, as well as a wide range of greens including Bibb lettuce, Tokyo bekana, Cressida cress, mizuna, red Russian kale, Swiss chard, bok choy and red giant mustard greens.
Mickell sells baby greens, harvested after four to six weeks, and microgreens, which are in the plant's second stage of development after sprouting. The plants are at their most flavorful and nutrient-dense as microgreens, he said.
"The way I grow food here and give it to people is the way I eat it, the way I want to eat food, free of pesticides, the most natural way of growing things," Mickell said. "This is a place where we take pride in what we grow and we care about what people are consuming."
Soul Crop has only been open for days and has already seen drive-up traffic, mostly from people curious about his sign facing traffic on U.S. 27A. Mickell sells by the quarter-pound, with the Asian greens going for $1.99 and other greens going for $2.99. The herbs are pricier. Mickell said he is already getting word-of-mouth traffic.
Mickell has no background in farming — on the contrary.
"I'm just a kid from Las Vegas," said Mickell, 28. "We don't really do anything like this out there. I learned, everything within the last three years, about working with PVC, building the greenhouse, all this stuff."
Mickell said he first became intrigued with aquaponics in 2012, while he was serving in the Marine Corps and taking courses online to earn a bachelor's degree from Thomas Edison State College. He said he actually first heard about the method from his wife, Dania Davy, 33, an attorney licensed to practice in North Carolina, who had a fellowship working with farmers on a variety of issues.
"Because of my work I was able to travel to a lot of farms and see a lot of different operations," Davy recalled. "I just casually mentioned to him there are different programs to encourage veterans to become farmers. I told him about the aquaponics I'd seen. It's very physically intensive, but not as labor-intensive as traditional ag."
Mickell described aquaponics as "a fairly new technique, but an ancient practice."
"You mostly have to get acquainted with biology and chemistry and that'll pretty much tell you how the process functions," he said. "There are people who have videos and have been doing it, through like YouTube."
In 2013, Mickell said, he and another buddy in the Marine Corps began experimenting with a small aquaponics system. Davy laughed as she recalled those early trials.
"He had like a little fish tank in the house that he was experimenting with at first," she said. "I was pregnant at the time, so a lot of the stuff he was doing, I was like, 'What is he doing?'"
Later in 2013, Mickell's service career came to a halt.
He said he and a small group of Marines scheduled to go to Afghanistan were participating in a training exercise in which they unloaded equipment from a trailer. According to Mickell, about 2,000 pounds of rubber tire shreds fell accidentally from a forklift and when he pushed a fellow corporal out of its way, he got hit and suffered both a traumatic brain injury and torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. The Marine Corps gave him a medical discharge.
"I didn't think too much about it because I just figured that was the way destiny chose it," Mickell said. "It wasn't meant for me to go that way. It's probably best for me that this did happen. Instead of an injury, maybe I wouldn't have made it back. Anything can happen."
Davy said the accident ended her husband's lifelong dream of a career in the Marine Corps as an officer.
"When the injury took place, it really threw him for a loop in so many ways," she said. "It took away what had really been a significant goal for him."
Mickell said he struggles with the effects of his head injury.
"I have to work twice as hard as I used to," he said. "I have to write things down. Sometimes I will not remember what I just talked about. I have to be conscious of things and writing them down, going over them a certain amount of times in my head to make sure what it is."
Mickell and his wife then decided they would move to Florida — Davy is a native of Jamaica who grew up in Orlando — and he would pursue his business dream. They scouted several locations before a Realtor told them about the property in the Lake Weir area.
"We looked at zoning and everything was perfect there," Mickell recalled. "I said 'This is it. This is where we're going to do it.'"
They bought the property in February 2014. According to Mickell, he has financed the start-up operation with a chunk of his own savings, about $20,000, explaining he is reluctant to take on debt. He then tackled what amounts to an elaborate engineering project — with components including a swimming pool, a pump, a filter, and 80-foot lengths of PVC pipe with holes drilled at 8-inch intervals.
"I built this system probably at least six or seven times," he said. "You have to deal with gravity. Gravity is one of the main things, so I had to build it until I got it right. About five months ago, I finally got it right."
Mickell's three-year plan is to have the farm producing at near full capacity and serving local restaurants as well as individual produce customers. In five years, he aspires to pay off the home on the property he shares with his Davy and their daughter, Imara, 20 months.
"She's usually out here with me," Mickell said of the baby. "She's learning. Hopefully, when she gets older, she can learn the business and take over."
Above all, he said he is savoring his new career, particularly in the wake of the injury that ended his time in the Marines.
"It allows me to just be free and not worry about anything else that's going on outside in the world," Mickell said. "This doesn't feel like work to me. It feels like a hobby that has become a career. It's really refreshing. "Sometimes, I wish there were more hours in the day because it's just so fun.
"I get so much out of doing it," he said. "It's really meaningful to me to do this type of farming.
Davy said she, too, is thankful for her husband's new career.
"I know he can do anything he puts his mind to," she said. "He's a very ambitious person, but to actually see the dedication he had, to see what he's built with his own hands, I'm really so proud of him because he really stuck to his vision."