The sun is beaming during the magic hour through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the kitchen, giving a warm glow to every living thing it falls on: the people, the dogs, the microgreens. Leaves and stems spill over the sides of dozens of trays of microgreens, lining the shelves of metal racks snaking their way through the kitchen and into the dining room. I’m standing in the middle of a jungle in Roslindale, MA, conveniently tucked into the home of Lisa Evans and Tim Smith, co-founders and owners of We Grow Microgreens. We find three chairs and a table nestled among the plants, and we sit down for a quick interview about the thriving company.
Let’s start with your name, where we are, and what you do here.
Lisa: I’m Lisa Evans, and at We Grow Microgreens we both do almost everything together. There are some aspects of the business that I do and there are some that he does, but pretty much since there’s only the two of us right now, we’re interchanging almost everything. You know, I’ve taught myself now basic accounting, website design, marketing, sales, deliveries, packaging… (laughs) and growing, and seeding, and we’re learning a lot as we go along! But pretty much I’d say we’ve got our hands in a little bit of everything. Both of us.
Tim: Hi, my name is Tim Smith, and I am the chief grower of the microgreens. And, um, Lisa has already told you a lot!
What’s your background on how and why you started We Grow Microgreens?
Lisa: Well, we were both Boston Public School teachers, and we got an epiphany that we wanted a change from public education. We wanted to have a medium where we felt we were having an impact on our daily lives, on our quality of life, and on the quality of lives of other people. I went to a health institute where I learned a lot about the benefits of eating microgreens and how important they were for my diet, and I came back from the health institute, called Hippocrates, with a bag of seeds and Tim, being an award-winning grower of plants, I figured this would be easy for him to master. So we started off just basically for my own personal consumption (laughs) and then Tim really got the hang of it and so did I. We were growing a lot, and we ended up buying soil one day at the Russell’s Garden Center where they have a large farmers market called the Wayland Farmers Market, and there was a sign up for the Wayland Farmers Market, and I poked Tim and I said, “We should be part of the farmers market, we could sell the microgreens at the farmers market!” And I left just a handwritten note for the woman that runs the farmers market and I said we’d love to be part of it. And she called me up and she said, “What’s the name of your company?” I said, “um… We Grow Microgreens!” (laughs) and she said, “What’s your website?” and I said “I’m working on it right now, I’ll have it done by next week!” And much to my surprise, I managed to make the website by the end of the next week, I had registered the company with the city of Boston as a small company and with the state, and I’d gotten insurance before the first day of the farmers market. And ironically, it turned out to be the largest, hardest, most popular farmers market to get into. Have you been to the Wayland Market?
I have, yes, they have a really great winter market.
Lisa: It’s a great winter market. And we got into it. There were no microgreen growers at the time, and that’s how we got it, that’s how we launched the business. We saw that there was a demand and an excitement and a need for microgreens.
So Tim, Lisa mentioned that you have a background as an award-winning grower; can you talk a little about that?
Tim: I think plants have always been an important part of what I like to do. Ever since growing up and having a family that had a backyard garden, dad who was really into landscaping, when he got home, and I was a Boston teacher for many years and the stress would always be relieved when I got home and I was able to work in my garden. And I got interested in edible, tropical plants, sub-tropical plants, learning about things that maybe were a little harder to grow in our area but could be grown. I was always amazed at the Italian gentleman who would grow these massive figs in various neighborhoods and then at the end of the season bury them in the ground, and then in the spring, bring them back up and have lots of luscious fruit in the fall. And so I just learned more and more about that, and I was intrigued, and thought about possibly combining education with horticulture, but ultimately we decided to go in the direction of a for-profit company. We did a lot of research as we were starting the company. We learned about a number of people who have been pioneers in urban farming. I had the opportunity to go to Milwaukee to, in particular, one of the major urban farms called Growing Power, which is a place that I recommend anybody interested in urban farming attend, or at least go on a tour to see what it’s about. So we were really intrigued by these movements, and we were just learning more and more about urban farming movements across the country, and we did our research, and we said if we’re going to start small, probably the best thing to do would be start with microgreens which you can start them in a small footprint, you can start them in your garage, you can start with a few grow lights and then as your business builds you can expand that space, and that’s what we’re tying to do now.
So literally starting small, small plants and small business. Did your decision to grow small have anything to do with having a small space in the city?
Lisa: yes, yes, I mean if we were gonna grow mature radishes, we could maybe grow, I don’t know, maybe a 1,000 radishes in this space, whereas with the microgreens, we can grow maybe 10,000 little, tiny microgreens.
Tim: I think with, you know, when we talked about urban farming, you have to think differently. Urban farming being anything within a city or perhaps a suburb where you’re using a small footprint, maybe your backyard, maybe your basement for some people, perhaps a vacant lot that you have been able to acquire or lease. So when you’re doing that, you have to think differently than the larger farm that can produce acres of product. And so some people are doing vertical growing, other people are coming up with unique products. There’s been a big push for hydroponics and aquaponics in urban environments. People are doing very intensive farming. And so microgreens really fits within the urban setting because it’s a product that a lot of consumers and chefs want fresh and if you’re in a city, you’re able to provide that product to your chefs and to your consumers without the shipping and the distribution that sometimes happens with larger products.
What kind of nutrients are we getting from eating microgreens and how do you recommend eating them?
Lisa: well the sunflower is extremely high in protein, 25% of the plant approximately is protein. So if you were a vegetarian or if you’re trying to cut back on your meat intake, this is an excellent way to get protein into your diet from a plant, rather than a piece of heavy red meat. It also has vitamins A and C, so it’s a great way to get particular vitamins into your diet quickly. We have a lot of customers that are eating the microgreens because they’re deficient in certain vitamins and they have researched which vitamins they’re deficient in and then they’re eating those particular microgreens in large quantities. The red one (points to a plant behind us), the red amaranth is high in vitamin K so that’s a great way to improve your eyesight. Radish is also high in vitamin A and C, and it has been shown to have some properties to help reduce your risk of cancer, as does broccoli […] Every microgreen, just like every vegetable, has different nutrient densities, and different nutrient properties but when you eat it when it’s in its micro stage it can have up to 40 times more nutrients than the mature vegetable.
Interesting. I was just going to ask if they were different from the mature vegetables.
Now why is that? Is it because of how you grow them?
Lisa: Because pretty much everything the plant needs to grow is in the seed, and then those nutrients get dispersed into the first two leaves, called Cotyledon, and the over the summer they basically get diluted. They get spread out throughout the entire plant as the plant grows and mostly what you’re getting now is a lot of fiber and water. So lets say you’ve got a mature broccoli head versus two tiny little leaves and a stem, well, all those nutrients that were in the seed, instead of being in the whole huge broccoli head, all you have to do now is eat this little stem and two leaves. And you know, it’s not apples to apples, it’s not exactly, but it’s more densely packed when it’s the baby. There’s some interesting articles on our website where you can read about some of the studies that show some of the higher nutrient densities when you eat a plant within its micro stage.
That’s so interesting. That totally makes sense too now that you say it. What do you see for the future of the company?
Lisa: We are trying to get a piece of land from the city of Boston, we’re working closely with the city where we’re working out an arrangement where we’ll be able to grow on a much larger piece of land […] we’re excited about moringa, we’re excited about turmeric, we’re gonna grow some ginger, we’re hoping that there’s some special berries we can grow, like the miracle berry, where we can really help augment peoples diets and chefs palates.
Tim: I think we’re always, in addition to our microgreens, always seeking out, as Lisa said, some plants that we can introduce to folks that are looking for unique and different things. I was amazed to learn about a particular berry that grows on a small plant called a miracle berry, also know as the miracle fruit. It’s a small, cherry-like berry that you can actually suck on and a chemical is released on your to tongue that makes everything sour taste sweet for the next hour. So you can imagine having a miracle berry and then cutting into a lemon and just eating the lemon. That lemon would taste just like the sweetest lemonade you’ve ever had. Can you imagine the amount of sugar we could reduce in our bodies if we just used natural things like miracle berries and then just had lemons as opposed to lemons with sugar? So we’re just always learning about cutting edge things like that that are happening, and figuring out how we can be part of a company that promotes these unique things. So we’re doing our research on products like miracle berries, products like turmeric, and wondering if they couldn’t be incorporated into urban farming.
Look for We Grow Microgreens at farmers market, restaurants, and retail stores across Boston and Metro West. To listen to the full interview for tips on grow lights, coconut matts for seeding, as well as other information about microgreens, click the audio track here:
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist and creator of The Clean Food Club. She previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. She is committed to supporting local and sustainable food businesses by telling their stories with photo and video. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.