Don’t call a microgreen a sprout. Here is why. “They’re not really sprouts. Those are germinated seeds grown in water,” said Christi Reilly, who, with her husband Kyle, is nurturing their microgreen business called TerraSol Organics. “Microgreens are the starts of your favorite vegetables, with an established root system and leaves that are allowed to photosynthesize.”
Still, microgreens aren’t grown for very long. After just a few weeks, the tender shoots are snipped off and tossed into salads and sandwiches to add a delicate flavor and crunch. Or they’re artfully arranged atop an entree as a delicious finish, and some are even cooked or deep fried.
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The Reillys grows 10 varieties of microgreens, ranging from radish and kale shoots to arugula and mustard greens. Pea and sunflower shoots are also customer favorites.
“Once people taste them, they realize they are really good,” Christi said. “Pea shoots are as nutritious as kale and spinach, however they are a very tender green. They’re easy to throw into most of your meals.”
And for those who may not care for the sometimes sulfury taste of kale and other crucifers, the microgreen versions of the same nutrient-rich plants have a sweeter flavor. “A lot of restaurants add them to their meat dishes, seafood, tacos and burgers,” Christi said. “The pea shoots can handle a little heat, and additionally, they last a long time. They have a 10- to 14-day shelf life.”
The couple, who have been growing and selling microgreens for three years, moved to Southern Oregon from Reno, Nevada, where Kyle grew up and later met Christi.
“I spent 10 years selling produce at farmers markets in Reno,” Kyle said. “It was natural for me to be around good people and the farmers who were selling nutritious and flavorful food.”
Together with Christi, they decided that they wanted to grow their own nutritious food, but found some financial roadblocks to a farm of their own.
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“Traditional farming takes a lot of land and equipment—and we didn’t have either,” Christi said. Her parents had recently moved to Southern Oregon and the couple thought that the area might provide an opportunity to start their own business.
“We knew that we wanted a place where there was more water with a strong agricultural base,” Christi explained. “We liked the idea of sun, we wanted good sunshine,” Kyle added. And they found that sunshine in a rural community north of the town of Rogue River in Southern Oregon, where they rent a home and half of a small greenhouse on an organically certified 40-acre farm.
Inside the greenhouse, they can grow microgreens year-round, although Christi noted that the growth rate varies by season—winter-grown microgreens take a few days longer from seed to harvest than summer-grown microgreens.
The microgreens are grown in just 1 inch of soil that “the roots permeate, creating a strong mat of roots,” Christi explained. A typical tray of pea shoots, for example, has about 1,500 tiny pea plants, creating a sea of bright green in their growing trays.
The Reillys grow their microgreens in high-quality potting soil since they have found that the flavor is better than it is in microgreens grown in coconut coir or quartz wool. Additionally, since the microgreens are grown for such a short period of time, “you don’t have to add fertilizer,” she explained, adding that the soil has enough micronutrients to support these sprouting plants.
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To grow pea shoots, for example, dried peas are pre-soaked in water and then spread in a thick layer atop the soil-filled growing tray. Trays are placed onto plastic-lined growing beds, which are flooded with water, allowing the seeds to absorb water from underneath.
“It reduces diseases and provides more consistent watering,” she explained. “Consistency of our product is very important to us.”
Each week, new trays of microgreens are sown while others are harvested and packaged for sale. With the help of two employees, the spent soil from the growing trays is emptied, then the trays are washed and sterilized before being refilled with new potting soil and hand-seeded with microgreen seeds.
“Everything is done by hand,” Christi explained. Careful packaging of the microgreens into bags is particularly important. “It’s critical because the greens are tender and easily bruised, which will decrease their shelf life.”
Each of their six production beds can hold 52 flats of microgreens in various stages of growth. This year, the Reillys are seriously ramping up production.
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“When we began, we were lucky to sell 20 pounds a week,” Kyle said. “This year our goal is 200 pounds per week.” That means selling their microgreens at up to eight outdoor markets, up to 20 restaurants, 10 grocery stores, two farm stands and through a number of community-supported agriculture produce subscription programs.
Because they grow a fresh commodity, “distance to our markets is critical,” Christi said. “We work on the farm but commute to our markets.”
Selling their niche crop is a job in itself. “You’re essentially selling yourself,” Christi said. “We love interacting with our customers.”
“You may have a lot of microgreens in 2- and 4-ounce bags, but people still don’t know what they are. You have to encourage customers to come in,” Kyle added.
Just selling their microgreens is a lot of work. “Each market day is an eight-hour shift and then there are two more days of deliveries [to stores and restaurants],” Christi said.
“We are physically at five markets and have other farmers who sell our greens at three other small markets,” Christi said. But they each have their own markets and customers.
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“Having independence at the markets is important, especially working together as a couple. We still have our own things to do. She has her market and customers in Grants Pass, and I have mine in Medford,” added Kyle.
Additionally, the Reillys have their own jobs within the other parts of the business. Christi, who has a masters degree in hydrology, is in charge of the planting and harvest scheduling while Kyle is in charge of marketing.
“I defer to her in here,” he said, standing in the microgreen-filled greenhouse. And Christi defers to Kyle when it comes to selling their wares.
“We find that marketing is a challenge for a lot of farmers,” Christi said. “Some just don’t like to sell.”
“I love produce. It’s easy for me to sell,” Kyle added.
More Than Greens
The couple acknowledges that their greenhouse-produced food doesn’t fit the traditional definition of farming.
“It feels more like a production facility and it’s hard to say that we are ‘farming,’” Kyle said. “We may not have a tractor, but we are still producing food and selling it at farmers’ markets.”
And while their crop is both a higher value crop than, say, that of carrots or tomatoes—about $3 for a 2-ounce bag of chard microgreens compared to $1.50 for a bunch of chard—it also is a more expensive crop to grow.
“How many pounds of tomatoes can you get off of one plant?” Christi asked. By comparison, each microgreen seed produces just a single edible shoot, and each 2-ounce bag contains hundreds of shoots.
“In reality, seed is our business so we have to buy a lot of it,” Kyle added. And there’s no guarantee that each seed will produce an edible shoot. One of their most challenging microgreens, for example, is sunflower shoots.
“In just one day they can go from tasty to astringent,” Christi said. “And if that happens we send them to the chickens.”
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Those chickens include two flocks of 100 Barred Plymouth Rocks, 50 New Hampshires and a certified heritage flock of White Chantecler chickens, a breed that originated in Canada. The pasture-raised birds are good egg layers as well as meat birds.
“With other poultry breeders across the country, we’re working on improving the genetics of all three flocks,” Christi explained. “The rooster is about 9 pounds and a nice dual-purpose chicken. These are different than the ones you can find at the feed stores.”
The Reillys aim to continue increasing their microgreen production. One of their goals is to buy their own property.
“We plan on being in this business for the long haul,” Kyle said.
Rules of the Organic Road
There are few rules and regulations for farming, but Christi and Kyle Reilly have sought out extra certifications so their customers not only know what they grow, but how they grow.
For example, while the greenhouse they rent, along with the microgreens they grow, are on land that is already certified organic, the couple is working to obtain their own Oregon Department of Agriculture organic growers certification. As part of that, they use only certified-organic seed and soil.
Both Kyle and Christi also have earned Oregon food handler certificates, although they note that the special training is not legally required. “We felt that we are handling somebody’s food so we should have it,” Kyle explained.
And the couple is working to obtain their Good Agricultural Practices certification through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This program ofers voluntary audits of food production operations to verify that their foods are “produced, packed, handled and stored in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards,” according to the program’s mission statement.
“It’s the responsible thing to do and wholesale distributors want to know how you handle the produce,” Kyle said. “It’s all about transparency.”
The Reillys also have honed their business skills through U.S. Small Business Administration programs as well as sought out business mentors.
“It’s important to have a lot of people on your team,” Christi added. “And not limit your mentors to just farmers.”
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.