By Harrison Greenspan
The world of healthy eating and nutrition is finally becoming mainstream. And they’re welcomed trends, as it’s not some sort of half-fast hack to lose weight or look a certain way, it’s the real deal. These truly healthy trends might be especially true with the fact that stay-in-place or quarantine measures have made eating out at restaurants or even your favorite fast food joints more unlikely due to the risks of exposure, and thus giving you the opportunity to test out your culinary skills. This is a wonderful notion, as most people will tend to eat healthier when they cook food themselves, as restaurants and particularly fast food joints typically include unsightly additives and ridiculous amounts of sugar and salt in their meals, all while being highly processed.
The Bad News
To add more fuel to fire, respiratory diseases such COVID-19 are showing us that the virus hits hardest with populations with pre-existing respiratory diseases, pre-existing cardiac diseases, and those with compromised immune systems. Unfortunately, people living with obesity simply have a higher likelihood of being in one or more of these categories. And studies have only evidenced the correlation of COVID-19 and obesity. In China, data from 383 patients showed that having obesity was associated with a 142% higher risk of developing severe pneumonia associated with COVID-19. A larger study of over 4,000 patients with COVID-19 in New York City found that severe obesity was a major risk factor for hospitalization, second only to age. In Seattle, a study of critically ill COVID-19 patients made similar findings. This analysis found that 85% of patients with obesity required mechanical ventilation, compared to 64% of patients without the condition. Moreover, 62% of the patients with obesity died of COVID-19, compared with 36% of those without obesity. And a study involving 124 patients in Lille, France, also found that patients with obesity were more likely to require invasive mechanical ventilation.
The Good News (especially for your wallet)
Although these studies should scare anyone with unhealthy eating habits and respective issues associated with those habits, eating healthier has actually been an upward trend in the past decade. Besides seeing the influx of organic products at the grocery store, as well as those claiming to be GMO and promoting their minimally processed or whole-food ingredients, studies are there to back up the hype that the food production industry is seeing. L.E.K. Consulting’s 2018 food and beverage survey of almost 1,600 consumers found that 60% to 70% of consumers, up 10 percentage points from 2016, will pay premium prices for natural (e.g. organic, no artificial ingredients and preservatives, non-GMO), ethical (e.g. locally produced, antibiotic-free, cage-free), enhanced (e.g. protein-rich, Omega-3 rich, antioxidant-rich) or “less of …” (e.g. low salt, sugar-free, low calorie) foods. Among committed consumers, 73% to 86% will pay extra, an increase of 15 to 20 percentage points from 2016. Additionally, it seems like a similar portion of the population also cares about similar attributes when going out to eat. For example, according to the National Restaurant Association, 57 percent of adults say that they look for restaurants that serve locally sourced food when dining out.
So Why Microgreens?
Unless you have an abundance of real estate space (whether that be the seemingly endless amount of land for pasture-raised cattle or cage-free chickens, or even hundreds of acreage for adequate agricultural farming space), and have an abundance of funding, starting a traditional farm is not for every small business seeker. This is especially true due to the higher standards (meaning higher costs) that come along when trying to run a natural and ethical farm. Fret not, as growing something called microgreens is a more economical farming option that requires comparatively miniscule amounts of real estate space and funding.
Microgreens are a tiny form of greens harvested just after the cotyledon leaves have developed, which are basically the first leaves you see when the germinated seed is sprouting. They range in size from 1″ to 1 ½” tall, including the stem and leaves. A Microgreen has a single central stem, which is cut just above the soil line during harvesting. It also has two fully developed cotyledon leaves and usually one pair very small, partially developed true leaves. Microgreens are generally smaller than “baby greens” (e.g. spinach, kale, arugula, radicchio), but harvested later than sprouts (e.g. broccoli sprouts, mung bean sprouts, alfalfa sprouts and radish mustard sprouts), of which can actually be a part of your microgreens small business, although is currently highly regulated by the FDA (click HERE for more information on the differences between microgreens and sprouts).
Microgreens are found in a unique palette of colors, textures, and flavors that chefs use to decorate the food they serve at restaurants and cafes (which is why they’re often referred to as “vegetable confetti”), and are becoming a premium culinary ingredient used to enhance salads or as edible garnishes to embellish a variety of other dishes. And health conscious people are getting in on the fun as well, as it is estimated that these young plants have concentrated nutrient levels that can yield a whopping 40 times higher than their mature plant counterparts. As such, microgreens are highly nutritious, as they contain health-promoting and disease preventing properties.
Some of the most popular microgreens are:
· Radish microgreens, which are high in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
· Broccoli microgreens, which contain a compound called sulforaphane that has positive effects on cancer, aging, mortality, heart disease, brain and behavior, and more.
· Wheat microgreens, which are full of vitamins and minerals, and even gluten-free compared to other wheat products gluten-insensitive people cannot eat.
· Amaranth microgreens, which taste a bit like spinach, are rich in micronutrients, and have a relatively long shelf life compared to other microgreens.
· Beetroot microgreens, which are rich in iron, potassium, electrolytes and other essential nutrients important for skin and hair health.
· Cress microgreens, which have a slightly peppery taste and are abundantly rich in Vitamin K and Vitamin C.
· Arugula microgreens, which are packed with more antioxidants, phytochemicals, minerals, and vitamins than regular lettuce.
· Sunflower microgreens, which have a sweet nutty taste and high in B vitamins, Zinc, and many other vitamins and minerals.
· Cilantro microgreens, also referred to as Coriander, is said to help balance blood sugar levels, contains lots of vitamin A, and even helps remove heavy metals from the body.
· Mustard microgreens, which have that sweet-hot mustard flavor you may know and love, but also are high in fiber and have high concentrated levels of antioxidants.
Another beneficial aspect of microgreens is the fact that many varieties can be harvested in a week’s time, while the most you’d wait is about four weeks. Because the crop cycle is so short, as most microgreen varieties are ready to be harvested in no longer than two weeks, a grower can produce anywhere between 20-25 crops per year. To put that into perspective, microgreens sell anywhere between $25 per lb. and upwards of $50 per lb., depending on the variety.
If you’re interested in learning more about the numerous varieties of microgreens and their respective nutritional content and growing times, click HERE for probably more information than you care to see at this point.
What Kind of Real Estate is Needed?
As founder of UGF Farms, Linesh Pillai states, “A Microgreen farm can be opened by absolutely anyone.” And I agree with that notion because of its relatively inexpensive and space-conscious setup, which requires no more than cheap nursery trays (or any suitable shallow container, although growers yield great results with a 10” X 20” trey that produces 5-6 ounces of microgreens), filtered water, a growing medium (the soil blend you put in the trays), sprouting seeds of your choice, and access to good light. However, microgreens are durable enough to be grown practically anywhere, whether it be indoors on a sunny windowsill or kitchen bench, inside a mini greenhouse, outdoors on your balcony, or even on a covered porch or shade house with no need for a garden. What I’m trying to say here is that microgreens do well in most climate settings and will be much less picky than your average partner always changing the thermostat. And because microgreens can be grown with less intense lighting than most crops, low cost T5 fluorescent lights can be used for indoor growing. Nevertheless, microgreen seeds are first germinated in the dark but moved to a sunny spot or under lights after sprouting.
The water for the microgreen plants is filtered to remove chlorine and other chemicals, and sometimes a liquid seaweed extract is added to the water to provide a micronutrient boost. And while most small microgreen growers use a potting soil blend in the trays, hydroponic growers use a fabric mat, such as burlap, to hold the seeds in place. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient rich solution (soil-free) with the purpose of allowing plant roots to come in direct contact with the nutrient solution, while also having access to oxygen. Microgreen growers will typically use a method of hydroponics in combination with the urban vertical farming method to conserve space, as the plants are grown vertically and essentially stacked above one another. For a more detailed understanding on hydroponics and vertical farming, click HERE!
Who Are Your Potential Customers?
Microgreens are a niche product because they’re at their best when fresh. As a local producer, you can charge a premium for them so top restaurants and grocery stores are able to use them (or sell them) right away, as shortly as possible after harvest. Other customers that would be potentially interested in your microgreens product are five-star hotels, trendy or health-conscious restaurants and cafes, supermarkets/ grocery stores (especially the high-end ones of the world), and either health-conscious individuals or urban upper-middle-class households.
When selling microgreens to chefs, you’ll want to provide them with an info sheet, which will include your business information, products available to them, prices, and how to order from you. For example, include details such as what days your product will be available and the cost per 1 lb. bag of microgreens. Also, try to get a standing order with chefs who’ll need the microgreens fresh on a weekly basis. As an example, you’ll deliver $60 worth of microgreens to Chef Andrés every Monday morning, thus creating consistent demand for your product.
You can sell microgreens to residential customers at the local farmers market (especially if nobody is selling any there yet), or simply by way of delivery service, whether that be by you personally or a third-party delivery service. To expand your clientele even more, consider setting up a community-supported agriculture storefront on websites such as Local Harvest, where customers are able to type in their zip code to find locally grown food. More and more people are interested in locally grown food due to its freshness and retention of nutrients, as well as the fact that its more environmentally friendly due to its miniscule carbon footprint.
And lastly, providing free recipe ideas or recommended microgreens pairings with your deliveries will inspire your customers with different ways to eat the microgreens, and thus encourage regular orders.
If you want more information on growing microgreens to start your new small business today, click HERE!
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