As the local foods movement is growing, new opportunities are opening up for small producers to expand. One relatively new item of interest is microgreens. Microgreens are young, tender greens that are used to enhance the color, texture, or flavor of salads, or as a garnish for main dishes. Microgreens can have surprisingly strong and intense flavors for their small size. Usually these greens are harvested at around two inches in height, but that is dependent on the plant variety. These miniature greens differ from spouts; only the top of the plant is harvested and the roots are not used.
Growing microgreens can be relatively easy, because of the short growth time involved in production—one-to-three weeks for most varieties. There are few pest and disease problems. Microgreens can be grown using soil or soilless media.
To grow: Use a tray filled with a growing media such as peat, vermiculite, and perlite, about 1-2 inches deep. Spread seed over the top and cover with a light layer of soil. (Some growers do not cover the seeds with soil media; it depends on the type of watering system a grower plans to use.)
Mist the seeds gently to keep them moist, but not over wet. To grow in soilless media, different items can be used, including burlap materials, paper towels, or even Sure Grow pads, which are manufactured for this specific purpose. On this media, the seeds are spread and then kept moist as well. Each medium is a little different, and growers will need to do more research to determine which type best serves their purpose.
Lettuce varieties are not usually used because they are too delicate. Cabbage, beet, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, radish, swiss chard, and amaranth varieties are good species choices. Other varieties have been used successfully as microgreens, including carrot, broccoli, beet, lemongrass, popcorn, basil and onion. This list is continually expanding as more growers try new species. A variety of seeds can be planted in the same tray if they have similar germination rates. Many seed companies are knowledgeable about which types of crops grow best as microgreens and may even sell a microgreen mix. The mix may be more expensive, but it is a good way to start and learn more.
Growing microgreens can take anywhere from seven days to several weeks, depending on the speed of germination and the growth rate. Once the microgreens reach the first true leaf stage, usually around two inches tall, they are ready for harvest.
To harvest: Hold the tray vertically and use clean scissors to cut the stems above the soil. This is the most time-consuming part of microgreen production. Because of the short growing time, there is a quick return on the small farmers’ investment in seed, labor and other materials. Microgreens sell for a very high price in upscale grocery stores, and restaurant chefs are also showing interest. Chefs will often use these microgreens as garnish to enhance the dining experience.
According to a local grower, Carl Saunders, small farmers looking into growing microgreens first do their research and start out small. He recommends starting with a budget and knowing first where you are going to market your product because microgreens have a short growth cycle. He also says he particularly likes the book; Microgreens: A Guide to Growing Nutrient-Packed Greens by Eric Franks and Jasmine Richardson, published by Gibbs Smith in 2009.
If selling at a farmers’ market, it is a good idea to offer samples and have recipes available. This will encourage customers to try a new item such as microgreens.
Find a local chef or store that is interested in buying locally-grown microgreens and then discuss what price they are willing to pay for the product. There may also be a certain crop or mix that they would prefer be grown. Be sure to be knowledgeable about the product. Do your homework before meeting with a chef or a store manager.
Figure your seed costs, other materials, labor and processing to be sure that this is going to be a profitable venture. Also, be sure not to over-commit yourself—start small and expand slowly.