Get “rich” by going small
I started this story in my ebook, “The $1,000 Farm” — offering the idea that you could start farming on a super-small scale by raising and selling microgreens. A lot of people know already about germinating seeds and eating them a few days later. But less people are familiar with microgreens which (generally) are germinated in soil, put under lights and harvested somewhere between 10–14 days, depending (could be more, rarely less).
I first learned about it via SPIN farmer Curtis Stone and Luke Callahan (whose ebook is a much more detailed roadmap to starting a small microgreens business, soup to nuts), but thought it would be a good time to save some of my observations after about three successful months of producing and selling.
Anyway, my original idea was: get started farming as cheaply as possible with microgreens. For about $200, you can be up and running with a simple wooden rack (plans included in my book), fluorescent lights (or the T8 LEDs — even better), soil, seeds and black 11"x22" trays. As you sell (each tray is worth approimately $15 when all grows well — and you’re able to sell it, of course), you can basically push this money into ramping up your production. And as you cross other thresholds, you can use this money to start farming outdoor on a small market-garden scale — assuming you have access to land (and you don’t need much).
So that’s my premise, and it seems to be borne out by the details of my actual subsequent real-world experiments.
If you want to start, buy yourself some peas and sunflower seeds. For both of those, I use about 2 liters of soil (that’s the size of the old ice cream container I use as a scoop) in each 11"x22" tray, and approximately 3 oz of seeds in a little measuring glass (sorry that’s not converted to liters too, but that’s life). For small seeds, you’re looking at more like 1 oz or even less of seeds to the same volume of soil. You can experiment with sowing density, but you’ll just have to see as you repeat the process over and over what works in your conditions.
Best technique: use a double tray, the bottom one with no holes, the top one with holes. Put your soil in the one with holes, then put that tray inside the no holes one. Soak only your big seeds something like 8–12 hours. Dry them out, or at least mostly. Then sow thickly onto the surface of the soil. Do not bury them. Use a sprayer to really soak the soil, then stack your trays one on top of the next. Make sure to weigh down the top one. This weight helps activate the gravitropic response in the seeds, so they know which way to send down their roots.
Water once from above per day for about three days, or until you can see that the tails of the seeds have convincingly gone down into the soil and are gripping themselves in place via their roots. After this, put them under lights about 10 hours per day. When they look “big enough” to you, start cutting and eating a little bit each day, until you get a good feel for when is the right time to harvest and eat them.
After you put your plants under lights, stop watering them from above and start bottom-watering by pouring just enough water into the bottom tray that it covers the bottom of the tray evenly. Do not go overboard watering. If you think you see “white fuzzy stuff” growing, it’s probably only tiny rootlet hairs, and not fungus. Unless it’s fungus, but I’ve been very able to avoid those kinds of problems myself.
I find with sunflowers, that if you wait too long to harvest (generally once the second set of leaves starts developing), the flavor becomes not as good. And with peas, they’re just going to grow taller and taller. Eventually you’ll be forced to cut them when they start touching your lights too much. Again, you’ll just have to develop a sense for it.
Honestly, I’ve had almost no big problems getting this production to run really steadily and smoothly again and again. The only one I saw was with some radishes early on which were getting like little black spots/holes on the undersides of their leaves. Moving up from the cheapest soil to a slightly better quality solved that completely.
At first, I was washing rigorously all my trays after each run, and even using bleach. But eventually stopped after those problems went away. I dump out my harvested trays to my chickens who happily scratch through it and eat whatever is left. I’d like to find a way to recoup my soil, but short of running it through compost worm system (which I’ve seen a much larger grower in Montreal doing), I’m not sure yet of a simple way to make that happen.
As it stands, I think I’m paying around $15 CAD for approximately 75–80 liters of soil. So maybe that’s something like 35 trays per one bag of organic seedling mix. I buy my seeds mostly from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine, though occasionally supplement with what’s locally available at an organic grocery here in town (they re-sell seeds from Mumm’s).
I’ve also experimented with just buying a big ass bag of sunflower seeds meant for bird seed, and threw that down on compost outdoors. It works fine, though the condition are a lot less controlled than in my indoor grow rack. I simulated the top-weight by throwing down plywood with a couple rocks after sowing and watering in my seeds. The germination takes significantly longer and the grow-out takes longer (can be two weeks and beyond), but it can be a cost-effective way to grow a large quantity outdoors. The outdoor stuff looks worse (less uniformly green) but I think tastes better — more complex, nutty and “bursting” with flavor. I sell both for the same price, when I have the available.
I sell a 30 oz clear PLA (corn-based) plastic container directly to the consumer for $3. To make the $15 per tray, you’ll need weighty greens. A lot of the smaller stuff, like mustard or rocket I haven’t succeeded wildly to get the combination right where I can produce $15 worth of weight. So I’ve basically stopped growing what doesn’t work easily and doesn’t pay. I think this is a really critical principle if you’re going to play this game.
Actually, right now, I sell the vast majority of my stuff to a few local restaurants. I have five local clients, to be exact and they are just about all small “higher-end” places that are inns with restaurants attached. I sell 100 grams for $8 to restos, and 200g for $15. If this is going to be your only product and in low quantities, it’s best to get them to pay you right while you’re standing there so you’re not waiting Net 30 days or whatever for someone to maybe remember to send you a check.
I know Luke Callahan recommends having a minimum order for restaurants of $50, otherwise you start to lose time and money zipping around trying to fill like $10 orders here and there. But I’m on a pretty small island, trying to only serve clients on the island (for now), so I’m not super in a position to tell people to pony up that much or go away. 4/5 of my restaurants only buy like $10 from me every 2–3 weeks anyway, which sucks. But I’ve developed one good relationship with one cool up-and-coming chef who now basically is my main client and buys whatever I bring in, whether it’s microgreens, stuff from my garden or wild edibles that I forage. It seems to be very hit-or-miss with finding these places that will become the good business relationships you want. But that’s part of the fun of it too, I guess.
My advice is, even if there’s someone else offering this kind of product near you (and there is one other here doing it much bigger and for longer), still try anyway. You’ll at least easily be able to make back whatever money you put into it (probably over the course of 2–3 months or potentially less) and probably see an easy profit.
I’ve also, without really ever intending to, struck a deal with a local CSA to include my microgreens in their little PLA transparent boxes as an optional add-on product for their customers. I sell to the farm for $2 a box, they sell it for $3. I’ve also sold extra stock I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell to a local convenience store for 3/$5, and then they sell it for $3. I haven’t found that route is really worth it though, and haven’t sold them anything since.
If you want to get started farming and have limited space, capital and experience, I think microgreens is one of the best ways you can try it out. You’ll basically encounter miniature versions of all the different challenges you’d face doing any other kind of production, and you’ll be able to abstract from that experience general guidelines for producing, selling, storing, transporting, etc that you can apply afterwards to anything you want.
Can’t recommend it enough, and if you want to know what to do next, check out my ebook — which I’ll be updating at the end of the season with a full honest break-down of all my financial records and much much more.