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Maryland’s Bella Vita Farms built on inspiration

December 2023

Bella Vita Farms can grow about 1,000 heads of lettuce per week in its hydroponic greenhouse. (Photo by Sean Clougherty)

by , The Delmarva Farmer

BROOKEVILLE, Md. — Fate works in mysterious ways. For Ohio-born retired nurse Amy Falcone, fate made her a farmer.

Falcone and her family went to Zion Canyon National Park in Utah in July 2017. While there, they went to a restaurant that served fresh greens and fish. Falcone, who is keen on healthy eating, said she questioned how a land-locked state was sourcing this food.

Inspired from a family vacation, Amy Falcone opened Bella Vita Farms in 2019. (Photo by Sean Clougherty)

“The chef came out and said, ‘Everything you’ve eaten here has been grown here,’” she said. “And I’m looking around thinking well, there is no green anywhere.”
The method: aquaponics — a soilless growing practice where fish in deep water beds provide nutrients to the growing greens. She began learning about the process after leaving the restaurant.

Falcone and her husband returned to Maryland and drove a different route home. That decision led them to a farm for sale on the corner of Zion and Brookeville Road in Montgomery County.

“I kind of looked at my husband and said we’ve been to Zion Canyon, now I’m on Zion Road,” said Falcone. “Is this a God link?”

She bought the farm in September 2017 and began building it into what is now Bella Vita Farms, which opened in 2018. She began taking her aquaponics research seriously by taking courses in Colorado.

Bella Vita Farms serves Gaithersburg, Olney, Germantown and other surrounding areas. Its greenhouse, which opened in 2019, now has 85, 500-gallon tanks which include a 6,000-gallon aquaponics system and supports Koi and Tilapia contributing to year-round greens growth.

The aquaponic tanks produce a variety of microgreens, especially lettuce. According to Bella Vita Farms, the tanks can feed 1,000 heads of lettuce per week.

Falcone said the farming does not use pesticides or herbicides. She said the farm’s goal is to, “grow healthy food and be able to share it with people.”

According to Falcone, their first harvest from the aquaponics greenhouse was in September 2019. She planned to sell the produce wholesale with six restaurants on board, but in March 2020, COVID hit.

During the pandemic, then-Gov. Larry Hogan asked former and retired medical professionals to volunteer at hospitals. She returned to nursing while the farm was still operating.

However, Bella Vita Farms had lots of produce with no available wholesale buyers.

Falcone said she and the farm’s manager, Jeff Dowling, decided to post their product on Facebook for potential buyers; this worked.

“We realized how overwhelming that was becoming, we were getting texts at midnight,” Falcone said. “Do you still have eggs? Do you still have lettuce? Do you have anything?”

According to Falcone, people paid through Venmo and drove to the farm to pick up their orders. She launched a website to sell her produce and offered to deliver to customers’ homes in 2021

The farm continued to sell their produce through retail and, once restaurants were back open, wholesale. She said restaurants and other farms buy their product as well as receiving other local farms’ products to sell at Bella Vita Farms.

Dowling said he was pleasantly surprised with the farm’s growth since its beginning.

“Yeah, it’s gotten bigger than I anticipated,” he said.

Falcone said the farm donates product to Manna, a Montgomery County-based food bank and drive, every week since the beginning of the pandemic and is still a donor. The farm also has an “honors fridge” on the premises with a sign saying, “If you can pay, please do, if you cannot, please eat.”

Dowling said the farm’s and the Falcone family’s “number one goal is to help the community.” He also said the fresh produce from the garden and greenhouse, “is something that isn’t typically available to them.”

Bella Vita Farm also hosts events, notably corporate events, to support their agricultural efforts. Falcone said there was an increase in companies that sought meeting locations outside during the pandemic.

“We’ve done a lot of out-of-the-box kind of meetings where they’ll meet up under the barn,” said Falcone.

She said a group of scientists from the United Kingdom visited the farm while in Gaithersburg. She showed them the aquaponics area, had dinner from their produce and other businesses’ products and did one of the farm’s popular activities: Ax throwing.

According to Falcone, Bella Vita Farms introduced ax throwing to bolster its income before the completion of the greenhouse. It remains popular with companies and other parties. Dowling said people can sign up for a time slot online. Leagues also come to the farm and have competitions.

Dowling said he and his wife, who, according to him, is a good thrower, enjoy it.

This article comes from The Delmarva Farmer, an agricultural newspaper for the mid-Atlantic region.