By Erika Webb
The words in Genesis 1:29 compelled Deltona residents Susan and Mark Kastner to start a home-based business they use as a ministry to help families improve their health.
The couple's daughter Shannen, 10, had an unusual number of ear infections, bouts of bronchitis and other maladies including ADHD symptoms.
Mr. and Mrs. Kastner always were conscientious about the foods they ate, but with Shannen's issues they began to look more closely at exactly what they were consuming.
"I think we were fooled," Mr. Kastner said. "We thought we were eating healthy until we started reading labels."
That's when they went authentically organic and hydroponic.
They have three Tower Gardens in which they grow lettuce, kale, okra, eggplant, herbs, strawberries, tomatoes and more, year-round.
Closed system technology recycles 100 percent of the nutrients and water so the plants use as little as five percent of the nutrients and water that conventional and organic farming require. The first of its kind, the patented Tower Garden grows 20 plants per tower in a fraction of the time it takes to grow them in soil. Almost any vegetable, herb or flower will grow in the system and the majority of its components are sourced and made in the United States, where all Tower Gardens are assembled, according to information provided by Mrs. Kastner.
Shannen, who is home schooled, helps her parents with pest control by checking the plants each morning and disposing of invaders.
Before making her rounds on a recent Wednesday, she plucked a leaf of Swiss chard from the Tower Garden in the front yard and munched it like a potato chip.
"She loves it," Mrs. Kastner said. "She's been able to go off of all medications and when the doctor checked her blood work they said her (nutrition) levels were high enough to take her off the vitamins."
But synthetic vitamins weren't responsible for the improvement, Shannen's parents said.
It was organically and hydroponically grown fruit and Juice Plus, a line of whole food-based nutrition products, which include 17 to 25 different fruits and vegetables.
"When the doctor found out about the kale, other vegetables she was eating and the Juice Plus, he said 'fine, keep her on it,'" Mrs. Kastner said.
The family also runs a co-op to provide organically grown fruits and vegetables which are more difficult to grow at home. Every other week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 4 and 7 p.m., members drop by the Kastners' home to pick up their produce.
"We have four groups of 12 people going now," Mrs. Kastner explained. "Groups five and six are almost ready to start and we have people on a waiting list."
Current members include residents of Deltona, DeLand, Orange City and Lake Helen, and the sixth group being formed consists of Port Orange residents.
Mr. and Mrs. Kastner get the co-op's organically grown produce from Sarasota-based Global Organics Specialty Source Inc. -- Noah's Organic Garden.
"We only take the stuff grown in Florida or the southeast; occasionally we'll go California (grown) but not outside the U.S.," Mrs. Kastner said.
Word of the co-op spread via Facebook, she said, growing to include nearly 72 members since June.
The plants in the Tower Gardens grow remarkably fast, even without the help of social media.
They go from seedlings to salads in three to four weeks, "weather" or not.
"It's like a little micro-climate," Mr. Kastner said. "Seed packets always have directions to plant between this time and this time, but none of that matters because the water in the towers acts as a heater and a cooler. So in summertime when everything's hot, the water is circulating and cooling. In the winter it's the opposite, the water is circulating and it's warm."
"Typically everything grows three times faster in a tower," he added.
And the vertical gardens are affordable, Mrs. Kastner said. Their smallest one, which yields plenty of produce, was $500. With a $100 down payment and a $45 interest-free payment each month, the tower was paid for in a year. Nutrients and other startup supplies are included.
"Broken down, it's only $11 a week for much more produce than you'd get at the store," she said.
Right now, as many people are closing down their ground gardens, Mr. and Mrs. Kastner said they are starting lettuce, strawberries, kale and herbs as well as experimenting with Stevia, a natural sweetener.
"All the leafy stuff," Mrs. Kastner said.
They utilize the ground, too, and have a thriving Seminole pumpkin vine, which has deep yellow trumpet-like blossoms trailing around their swimming pool.
"This is one of our most aggressive times of the year," Mr. Kastner said. "It's the best growing season."
Mrs. Kastner said through September, anyone who orders a Tower Garden will receive free seedlings, a $50 value.
Even squash will do well for them until around January or February.
A stir fry dinner was planned for the evening, including the amethyst colored eggplant growing in one of the towers. They enjoy the family time harvesting, preparing and, of course, consuming the produce.
For Shannen, who helps out at shows where they promote their the towers and juice plus products, tending the plants and assisting on co-op pick up days, there are many lessons to be learned.
"She gets a little paycheck for saving, spending and tithing," Mrs. Kastner said. "She's learning, at 10, what some people don't know at 30."
The Kastners also use ViSalus Sciences products, which the company advertises as, "Fast food made healthy."
"We do those as well because of how busy our lives are," Mrs. Kastner said. "When we're on the go we can take the travel packets, just run in someplace and grab a container of milk to mix with it. You have all of your nutrition in these and you're not hungry."
She said the product helps with weight loss, enhances muscle tone in exercisers and provides an energy boost in the afternoon.
"It's a great after school snack, and they also make cookies and cereal," she said.
Between being part of a family business, aimed at helping others, and being home schooled, Mrs. Kastner said Shannen learns character-building and life skills which aren't emphasized in traditional schools.
She knows. She was a teacher for 13 years.
Bringing physical and spiritual health to the table, for themselves and others has provided them with a job where they don't have to toil.
The Kastners are convinced aggression, poor attention span and numerous health issues result from the consumption of processed foods and pesticides. They take their instructions from their creator and because it's working for them, they share the good news.
"And God said, 'Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food,'" reads the verse in The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
"God created us and if we ate the way He told us to eat we wouldn't have these problems," Mrs. Kastner said.
She's hearing a lot of "Amens" from those who follow her lead.