4Roots Farm: Connecting Local Farms with Urban Communities

Web AdminFruits, Specialty Crops, Vegetables

By Frank Giles

Florida is one of the fastest growing states in the nation with a population of more than 22 million people. Urban centers like Orlando and the I-4 corridor are expanding into once rural areas. That sometimes creates friction between the farmer and newcomer, but it also creates opportunities and new markets for produce grown on the farm.

4Roots Farm
An artistic rendering of the completed 4Roots Farm campus in College Park near downtown Orlando.

As the United States becomes more and more urbanized with generations removed from agriculture, there is a growing gap between the consumer and producer in understanding where and how food is grown.

John Rivers, owner and founder of the 4 Rivers Smokehouse barbecue restaurants, has made it a mission to help bridge that gap by educating and connecting local farmers with urban consumers. What started out as a passion for perfecting the art of barbecuing beef brisket turned into a faith-based fundraising outreach, which eventually led to the first 4 Rivers Smokehouse opening in Winter Park in 2009.

Since that time, 15 smokehouses have opened, and the restaurant is housed in other venues like Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, totaling 22 outlets for 4 Rivers. The business also has found success on the retail side, selling BBQ sauces and additional items in stores like Publix and other retail establishments.


Rivers and his wife Monica began seeking ways to give back to the local community. That connected them with Barbara Jenkins, the former superintendent of Orange County Public Schools. Their early work with local schools evolved into the founding of 4Roots Farm in downtown Orlando.

“John and his wife are very passionate about education, so they visited public schools in Orange County looking for ways they might be able to hone in their philanthropic giving,” says Tommy Ward, director of 4Roots Farm. “They walked through the schools to look for ways to help. It was in the cafeteria where John felt his heart strings tugged the most seeing what the kids were eating, or rather, not eating. They decided to work with the schools to find ways to fill their plates with locally grown produce.”

Their first outreach project was renovating the agriculture program at Ocoee High School. They built a greenhouse and worked with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the public school system to update the teaching curriculum.

4Roots Farm
A core mission of the 4Roots Farm is educating young people about agriculture and where their food comes from.

“We got that program up and running, and by early 2020 they were growing a large amount of produce, which was being sold back into school. So, the students were eating fresh salads and produce grown right there on the farm,” Ward says.

Next came Edgewater High School in the College Park neighborhood of Orlando. The agriculture program and farm were built from the ground up.

Both schools had beautiful and productive farms, but John and Monica knew this approach would take a long time to have programs built at each individual school, so their vision for the 4Roots Farm grew.


“John and Monica prayed on it and felt compelled to build 4Roots Farm in Central Florida. John would speak to groups about this vision, and after one such gathering, he was approached by a representative of Dr. Phillips Charities, who made an offer to donate 200 acres of land in the Packing District in Orlando,” Ward says. “At the time, we didn’t realize the impact this specific piece of land would have. What is unique is we are surrounded by just about every walk of life in the city. You have the Country Club of Orlando and historic downtown on one side and Parramore and Pine Hills on the other. We have a very diverse audience right in our backyard.”

The 4Roots Farm is now being constructed. It will be a 40-acre urban educational farm campus that will showcase different types of practices, including regenerative farming to rebuild soil health. When complete, the farm will be home to an educational/classroom facility, an 18,000 square-foot greenhouse, an outdoor learning farm, a farm-to-table restaurant, a culinary health center, a large events center and more. Construction will hopefully be completed by 2026.

“We are educating our community about the importance of consuming locally grown produce and the impact decentralized food systems can have on our communities and economy,” Ward says.


As the 4 Rivers line of smokehouses grew, there was an emphasis on sourcing locally grown produce to supply the restaurants. That mission now has grown beyond the restaurants into a reverse demand program and a community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

The reverse demand program started in 2020. It aggregates the produce purchases from group members, which include 4R Restaurant Group, AdventHealth, Orlando Health, KPMG and a number of Marriott hotels.

“We took the aggregated purchase amount and cross referenced the produce on the list that was grown locally,” Ward says. “These crops were then taken on a road show of sorts to farmers throughout the state to see if they would be able to support the demand of these institutions. If they grow enough to support that demand, we will set them up with Fresh Point, the distribution partner for this program, which handles the logistics of the deliveries.

“The partner members are given a unique code for ordering these products. We ask the farms for a voluntary contribution back to 4Roots if they see a benefit from the program. 4Roots and Fresh Point offer marketing materials to the partners to help them spread the knowledge of this initiative to their customers.”

The CSA, Fresh by 4Roots, started in 2022 and is delivering produce sourced from local farms. And it provides opportunities for smaller farms to participate in the program.

Between the reverse demand program and CSA, 4Roots does business with 52 farms in Florida. More than half a million pounds of produce are distributed annually through the programs.

Long & Scott Farms, based in Mt. Dora, is one of the businesses working with 4Roots Farm. Hank Scott says the relationship has been mutually beneficial.

4Roots Farm
Hank Scott, owner of Long & Scott Farms, supplies 4 Rivers Smokehouse barbecue restaurants and also participates in the 4Roots Farm reverse demand program.
Photos courtesy of 4Roots Farm

“We had built a fresh slaw-mix cutting facility here on our farm in a deal to supply a large barbecue restaurant chain,” says Hank Scott, owner of Long & Scott Farms. “We put the facility in to generate new revenue and do something value-added with the cabbage we grow, because the market can be so volatile with that crop.”

After a couple of years, the deal with the chain fell through, leaving Scott with an expensive cutting facility designed just for cabbage sitting idle. Then, one morning he attended a prayer breakfast where Rivers was the featured speaker.

“We were very impressed with him and what he’s trying to do,” Scott says. “We reached out to them about supplying our slaw mix through our facility. We’ve been working with them for about four years now. They don’t have near the number of restaurants as Sonny’s, so we don’t have the volume yet to be really efficient. But between the restaurants and the reverse demand program, we are hopeful the volume will continue to grow. When we started the slaw-mix, we were doing it just when cabbage was in season, but we are going to try to push this deal and see if we can get close to operating the facility nearly year-round.”

Scott adds the partnership allows smaller farms like his to find a niche that sometimes doesn’t work for larger food distributors who often favor larger farms.

“We need more partnerships like this, because in my opinion, the larger distributors just can’t work with the local farmer,” he says. “We get a set price per box for our slaw mix, and then when we get paid, we donate $1 per box back to 4Roots. It is a pretty neat deal.”

Scott says he’s impressed with the 4Roots Farm in Orlando and what is planned there. 

“The whole intent is to educate people, which we really need more of,” he says. “It starts with educating the children but will extend to their parents. It’s not just the kids who need education about where their food comes from. It’s the grownups, too.”