Consumers nationwide are voting for local foods with their wallets, opting to seek out and buy from local producers rather than purchasing food shipped hundreds, even thousands of miles. This creates new opportunities for small growers to start or expand their business.
One of the best newer crops that is ideal for local growers is microgreens, as their shelf life is limited and they do not ship well. Microgreens are the young greens of familiar herbs and vegetables that are used to enhance the flavor and color of salads, or as “bling” for a main dish. The flavor of microgreens is typically more intense than the flavor of a mature plant. Researchers have even found the nutritional value is much higher as well. Microgreens are not sprouts, as only the tops of the plants are used.
Growing microgreens is quick and easy because most microgreen varieties reach a harvestable size in about two weeks, which allows growers to produce up to two dozen crops in just one year. As most microgreens are grown in a controlled environment, such as a green house or indoors, there are few disease or pest problems. Best of all, microgreens bring $20 to $30 per pound, and can produce up to two pounds per square foot.
Microgreens can be grown in soil or in a hydroponic system using a burlap or fiber mat. Soil is best for most small growers, as the startup costs are lower than with hydroponics. Any high quality potting soil blend will work well for microgreens.
Seeds are spread on top of the soil in each growing tray, tamped in, and covered with either a paper towel or a humidity dome while germinating. Both methods work well, but the paper towel method is better for the small-seeded varieties. After seeding, the seeds and soil are misted to moisten them and start the germination process. The seed trays can be kept in a dark place while germinating, as light is not required during germination.
When the seeds have sprouted, the paper towel or humidity dome is removed, and the trays are placed in a well-lit place. A hoop house outdoors can be used, or the microgreens can be grown indoors under lights. As microgreens do not require high-intensity lighting, fluorescent grow lights can be used, which are affordable to purchase and operate.
Harvesting, after about two weeks, is a low-tech operation, using scissors or a knife to cut the young plants. After harvesting, the microgreens are rinsed to remove any seed hulls or soil particles to ensure a clean crop.
Because microgreens bring such a high price, typically $20 to $30 per pound, growers can earn a rapid return on their investment for equipment, seeds and labor. Restaurant chefs and upscale grocers are the best customers, as they are repeat customers. Most growers also sell at the farmer’s markets in their area to introduce new customers to microgreens. In addition, because of the high nutritional content of many microgreens, holistic doctors and nutritionists are now starting to recommend microgreens to their patients.
As with any new crop, growers should start small and learn more about both the plant varieties and local markets for their crops. One grower has designed the “micro box,” a compact growing module for microgreens, costing around $200 to build, that is ideal for learning more about growing microgreens commercially. With the high price of microgreens, it’s a great way to earn while you learn. Details about the microbox are in the new book, Growing Microgreens For Profit.