Growing and selling Microgreens: An example of an urban farming business
GroAction Greens was started as a part of the GroAction online urban farming course which empowers young farmers to succesfully start their own urban farming operation on less than 1/2 an acre of land. The online course can be found here: http://groaction.com/urbanfarm.
Farming can be done indoors, in your home, and it can take up just a few square feet. My friend Luke, through his one-man urban agriculture operation, GroAction Greens, has turned his indoor micro farm into a profitable business in which he cultivates organic micro greens in his home in Portland, Oregon, and sells them to local restaurants.
What are Microgreens?
Microgreens are baby vegetables and legumes that are harvested at the seedling stage. In restaurants they are often served as tasty and nutritious salad dressings and garnishes. Some commonly eaten microgreens are peas, radishes, beets, arugula, cabbage, broccoli, and mustard greens.
Some plants at this seedling stage possess incredible amounts of vitamins and minerals, making them a super-food. (The same is true of sprouts, which are seeds and beans that received just enough moisture to come out of the dormancy stage and send up shoots.) At this intensely energetic stage of the plant’s life, the microgreens can also be at their tastiest. I sampled a few bits of baby arugula that made my eyes water from their spiciness!
When Luke started he didn't have much experience farming, but felt that the best way to learn was to plunge ahead. So he built his nursery, ordered some seeds, and started talking to restaurants. After just a few months in operation, he already had a good planting routine and a steady business relationship with a handful of Portland’s high-end restaurants that are eager to include these fresh, local, and organic novelty items on their menu.
A useful book on how to grow Microgreens (used by Luke at GroAction)
Why Grow Microgreens?
When Luke started getting interested in commercial urban farming, he consulted with a few urban growers and did some reading. Microgreens were appealing for several reasons:
A) Luke didn’t have very much prior farming experience – but with microgreens you don’t have to raise a plant to maturity, thus cutting your costs and risks by harvesting them less than two weeks after they’ve been planted.
B) Microgreens don’t take up as much space as traditional crops, making them ideal for urban operations.
C) Microgreens are more lucrative than vegetables and are demanded by high-end restaurants.
D) For the restaurants, being able to source microgreens locally is a big plus, since they wilt and do not ship easily.
GroAction's Microgreen farming process
Luke has worked out a planting routine based on his initial research. Over time he continues to fine tune the details (including the amount of water, light, the best potting soil, the best time to harvest), and he keeps careful notes on his operation.
1) Preparing the soil beds
Multiple trays are filled with Fox Farm organic potting soil. Luke only uses organic products in his operation. Fox Farm he has found makes the greens grow particularly well, perhaps because it uses kelp as its nitrogenous ingredient. "Kelp is all the rage in the microgreen community," he says.
2) Soil compaction
Taking a piece of cardboard Luke presses down on the soil, compacting it slightly to make it sturdier in structure.
3) Sowing the seeds
He then sprinkles the seeds thickly on top of the soil. Like the soil his seeds are also organic - currently he's been ordering from Mumm's Sprouting Seeds farm in Saskatchewan.
The difference between sprouts and microgreens, is that sprouts are simply soaked in water until the seed germinates, and microgreens are planted in soil and allowed to reach a slightly later stage of growth before harvesting. The entire sprout is eaten whereas only the stalk and leaves of microgreens are eaten.
The exception to this rule are peas: if Luke is planting peas he will soak the pea seeds beforehand. This is because they absorb so much water before germinating that it’s difficult to provide them with enough once in the soil.
4) Laying the paper towels
Next he takes several squares of brown paper towel and lays it over the seeds. The towel replaces a top layer of soil, making the seedlings come up cleaner (thus making it easier at the harvesting stage). Once the seedlings poke their heads up the paper towel can be removed.
Taking a hose Luke waters the trays amply, until the paper towels are thoroughly soaked.
6) Growing in the nursery
Then under the lights they go. The nursery is a large home-made wooden contraption of stacked platforms. The microgreens are essentially resting on bunk beds canopied in flaps of cardboard that cover the sides, creating a shell and keeping the light in. The inside of these flaps are covered in aluminum foil, which reflects the light onto the plants, maximizing his energy inputs. Although, because he uses efficient lightbulbs, Luke says his electricity costs are minimal. The flaps are easily lifted to move the trays in and out for watering.
The lights are timed to give the plants 12 to 16 hours of sunlight, depending on how fast he wants them to grow.
To harvest the greens, Luke takes a sharp knife and quickly slices them at the base. You don’t want to use scissors because they will pinch the stalks.
It’s best to harvest right before delivering to the restaurants because microgreens are delicate and wilt easily, though if properly refrigerated they can last for a few days.
8) Recycling inputs
Finally, he tosses the leftover dirt and plant bits into a big vermiculture bin, where the organic plant matter is decomposed by worms. Eventually Luke will be able to reuse this dirt, cutting down on his input costs.
The Bigger Picture
Luke’s GroAction business is part of a larger urban agriculture movement finding its way onto the rooftops, the backyards, and abandoned city corners of North America. Farmers are not out to get rich quick – the system of ‘cheap food’ works against that. Urban farmers like Luke are generally in the trade for reasons other than money: they want to explore and reinvent our agricultural systems.
For urban growers, their consumers are their neighbors. In such a system, consumers and producers have faces. I accompanied Luke to drop off his microgreens at a bistro. The chefs were in the process of rolling some delicious smelling meatballs, but they looked up to give us a smile. Luke chatted with the owner a bit and handed him the box of greens he had harvested just hours before.
Farm to plate, sprouting tray to plate; it's all part of a new and sustainable foodscape. And it's something you can do yourself at home! Sprouts and microgreens are fairly easy-to-grow, extremely nutritious, and don't require a lot of space. Play with it and experiment - you'll see a major improvement to your diet and will probably have some fun in the process!
Curious? Want more information?
You can email Luke at: "luke at groaction.com", or visit his website.
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Mumm's is a farm on the edge of boreal forest in Saskatchewan, Canada. They grow organic seeds and ship them around the US and Canada.
Luke's GroAction business location. The micro greens are all sold to restaurants in Portland.