Photo by Dan Wagner Florikan products are being used by NASA in space station farming experiments Ed Rosenthal grew up farming with his father outside of Montreal, but he never intended to stay in agriculture. Farming was tough and memories of his childhood were filled with empty refrigerators. Rosenthal studied to be an English professor, but when anti-English sentiments in Quebec made it impossible for him to find a job teaching English in the French region, he landed back where he started: agriculture.Rosenthal’s return to agriculture proved fortuitous.He founded Florikan, a Sarasota fertilizer company, in 1982.
His son Eric now runs the company, which exports more than $30 million worth of unique fertilizers each year to growers in Arcadia, Chile, Turkey, China, and now, outer space.Last May, NASA selected Florikan’s Nutricote fertilizer for a veggie plant growth system installed in the International Space Station. NASA chose a variation of the company’s Nutricote fertilizer line to be used in experiments on the Space Station, where astronauts are growing red romaine lettuce to test how plants grow in space. On Wednesday, NASA approved the use of Florikan fertilizer for a leafy green and dwarf tomato growth initiative.
Astronauts are also growing nonedible flowers to test for potentially harmful microbes, single-cell organisms, that might grow on plants in space. Rosenthal’s firm, Florikan, developed technology that is able to control the timing of nutrients being released to the plants regardless of external conditions like, heat, cold or, say, the lack of gravity. Their products are durable even in hot climates and take effect over defined periods of time.“It provided all the nutrients for our plants to grow well,” said Gioia Massa, team lead on NASA’s Veggie Science team. “We’re growing in very unique conditions.”Rosenthal learned about plant nutrition farming with his father in Canada, and continued to develop his expertise in fertilizers and polymers working for Canadian companies after college. In 1982, Rosenthal moved to Florida to sell pots and fertilizer.Florida’s harsh climate and competitive agricultural industry forced Rosenthal to think outside the box.“If your products work in Florida, they’re going to work anywhere,” Rosenthal.
Rosenthal began importing and selling controlled release fertilizer developed by Japanese manufacturer Chisso Asahi. When that fertilizer took off, he started to develop his own, using the Japanese product as a base.His work earned him the National Society of Professional Engineers’ National New Product Award and a chance to collaborate with NASA’s Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program. Rosenthal proposed applying a polymer, a specific type of molecule, to his staged-release fertilizer, and within 40 hours SATOP’s scientists helped him develop his patented product.
Florikan continues to expand. It currently has about 80 employees but plans to create at least 100 jobs by building a new plant in Hardee County with a $4.5 million economic development grant awarded by the county last year.Beyond financial success, Rosenthal found success in developing fertilizers that he hopes are better for the environment.Before returning to agriculture, back when he was still studying English in Quebec, Rosenthal wrote a scholarly article on the Hebraic and biblical elements in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” One of the morals of the whaling novel, Rosenthal wrote, is that if humans do not respect the environment, it’s going to kick them off the planet.“The word in Melville that always stuck with me is respect,” Rosenthal said. “That’s the thing Melville was writing about and that’s what we built into our fertilizer.”