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Easy-to-grow microgreens can add year-round farm income

By Hallie Anderson, 10th Street Farm & Market

Microgreens have been popular with talented chefs for many years but are now gaining ground with the discerning home cook who adds them to eggs for breakfast, or as a nutritional and flavor burst in smoothies, sandwiches, and dinner salads. For the farmer, microgreens can be a valuable addition to farm enterprises, providing cash flow even in the winter months. Microgreens can be easy to grow and reliable under the right conditions with lots of opportunities for expansion.

Microgreens are the cotyledon stage of any vegetable or herb plant, generally grown in trays in a greenhouse or controlled growing space and marketed as a superfood. They are a great wholesale product and appeal to CSA and farmers market customers.

We added microgreens to our farm, 10th St. Farm & Market in Afton, Minn., in our second production year to help with year-round cash flow and help pay for the heat in our greenhouse in the winter months when we’re starting early transplants. We sell the greens through our three-season CSA, wholesale markets, and a well-attended farm stand.

Our microgreens have allowed us to grow our business without increasing field space. The packaged greens have attracted new customers to our CSA because they liked our product when they bought it at the co-op. It’s great when customers find us rather than the other way around!

Growing Tips
First decide what works best for your farm. Do you have greenhouse space that sits idle in the winter and mid-summer months? Do you have a seed-starting station set up in a spare room? You can utilize these resources to their full potential by adding microgreen production.

Just like all new varieties on a farm, there is a trial period with microgreens. Grow different varieties to determine which you want to focus on, and then set yourself up to do them well. The most common products are individual varieties or mixes sold direct to consumers or through grocery stores or farmers markets.

Microgreens are generally grown in trays in a growing medium. Some people use mineral wool mats like in hydroponic systems or potting soil in a greenhouse environment—we use the latter. The seed is planted on the surface of the tray, watered in, and allowed to grow just to the first leaf stage. Then it is cut, washed, dried, and packed in a retail-ready container or in bulk for restaurants.

Order small amounts of seed initially and take notes on how long each takes to grow, which variety needs to be covered with vermiculite to germinate, or which needs a deeper tray. Measure out your seeds per tray and pay attention to the density in which they grow. We struggled with rot in the middle of a tray because it was seeded too heavily. That taught us to alter seeding rates.

Weigh out and record the harvest of each tray so you have an idea of how much to plant to guarantee orders. Generally, you will get a good idea of what works for you in 2 to 3 planting successions.

Washing and packaging is a critical part of selling your product; microgreens need to be clean and should last 10 to 14 days from harvest—these will be your selling points when talking with chefs or produce managers. Harvest your micros, taking care not to break or crush delicate leaves. We harvest by hand with kitchen shears, but many people use electric knifes or table-mounted greens harvesters. Wash micros in cold water right after harvest, discarding seed pods and soil, to get them cool as quickly as possible to preserve their freshness. Spin them out in a salad spinner until fairly dry—this will help them last longer on the shelf. If you feel the need to pack them with something to absorb moisture, they are too wet—spin them out longer.

Packaging
Pack retail-ready microgreens in a container, like a clam shell or deli package, that will protect them from being squished. You want to pack the container so it looks full but not so tightly that the greens will rot in the center.

With mixes, color matters. Make sure your mix is attractive to the eye with different varieties that are similar in size so they are pleasing to eat and plate. This also helps with shelf life—the smaller greens will not last as long as larger greens and customers want a coherent product.

Retail labels must have: name of product, address of farm, contact info such as web, phone or email, and ounces of product. It is also a good idea to include a harvest date and lot number for traceability as well as suggested uses for the consumer. When designing a label for a grocery environment, take a look at other products already on the shelf and think about how your label could stand out. Try to complement the colors of your microgreens with your label colors to make a strong impression; often this means using red, purple, or a bright yellow/orange to compliment green tones.

Bulk packaging should be labeled with the harvest date and packed in no larger than half-pound bags. This allows you to maintain a high-quality product (and reputation). A chef may leave the microgreen bag on the plating counter for too long when busy. With half-pound bags, the rest of their micro order is safe in the cooler.

Finding Markets
We introduced our microgreens through markets we already had access to. We started with one mix and pea shoots; once these were well established, we added different micro herb options and went after restaurant sales. If you already are selling at a farmers market or into grocery stores or co-ops, it’s easy enough to add microgreens to your product line.

You will need a high quality, retail-ready product that looks good and is priced/packed for weekly consumption. It should be easy to explain to your customer how to use microgreens in everyday dishes. So you’ll want a mix with more common vegetable varieties like kale and beets rather than more “exotic” ones like micro tat soy or popcorn shoots. Find flavors that will appeal to the most people.

When selling microgreens to a produce manager who has not carried them before, you need to be prepared to educate both the manager and store consumers on what they are and how to use them; this means a little extra effort and printed materials. Approach the produce manager with your retail-ready products in hand to sample. Arrive at a time when the manager won’t be too busy and can spend a few minutes learning about your product. Sometimes this means introducing yourself via email beforehand and setting up an appointment, but most of the time it, is ok to drop by in the middle of the day—Wednesdays or Thursdays between 1 and 3 p.m. usually is the slowest time of the week for shoppers.

Bring along a price sheet with all your products listed, when they are available, and your minimum order; this sheet should also have your contact information on it. In addition, show the manager your retail-ready information sheet about microgreens and your specific products—something they could hang up in the produce department to draw attention to a new product and educate consumers.

When you’ve finished showing off your product, thank the manager for seeing you, and offer to follow up in a week to give them time to think. Do not miss this follow up! Everyone gets busy, but it is on you to call or stop back in. They are most likely not going to call you even if they love it. If they place an order—awesome! Maintain your quality standards and check in the first few months to see how sales are going and if they have gotten customer feedback.

If they don’t order, ask what their concerns are. Is it something you can control? Was it your quality? Thank them for their feedback, and go fix the problem. Do they just not have space on their shelf right now? Try back in a month and see if something has changed. Do they think their customers won’t know what to do with it? Offer to do in-store demos, and give examples of other stores that carry microgreens. Also suggest they carry them for a month as a trial; that way the manager does not feel like they made a long-term commitment to your farm, and you have four weeks to convince their customers the product is worth buying.

If your markets are restaurants or specialty grocery stores, you may want to grow and package individual microgreens or micro herb varieties over mixes. The quantities for herbs are generally smaller, but you can charge a higher price for a unique item. Micro herbs have a lot less kitchen prep to them than their full-grown counterparts.

To get your products into a restaurant, go in when they are slow so they have time to talk—Tuesdays between 2 and 4 p.m. usually is the slowest time. Emphasize that you are a local farm; your produce will have full flavor and last longer because it was harvested at its peak and traveled very few miles to the restaurant. Make a point to mention how long your microgreens last; if they have previously bought microgreens through a distributor, they are probably accustomed to throwing half of them out due to rot or wilt.

Listen to what the chef is looking for in a product and in partnering with a local farm. If all they talk about is the price, it may not be the relationship you want to pursue. But, if they talk about high quality ingredients, seasonality, and flavor, this is the chef for you. Chefs can be both fun and challenging to work with as the menu changes through the seasons. Stay in touch with the chef’s plans and see if you can offer variety throughout the year. In smaller restaurants, the chef is often the buyer, menu maker, daily cook, and wears many other hats so put a reminder in your phone to call or email regularly for orders if they are not consistent.

Once you establish a few products, branching out with more variety is an easy way to expand your sales to existing customers. The reputation you build for quality products grown with high standards will give you confidence to pursue new clients.

Microgreens have great potential to bring added revenue to your farm operation, especially in winter months or slow times of the year. They may take a little effort to educate your markets about them, but once established become a consistent and reliable form of income while utilizing structures and resources you probably already have, making you one smart cookie.

Hallie Anderson and her mom, Lisa Talbott, own and operate 10thSt. Farm & Market, a half-acre farm in Afton, Minn., growing produce for a three-season CSA, farm stand, and wholesale accounts.

 

 

From the November | December 2018 Issue

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