By Brian Randall
Small farms everywhere have always had to deal with the seasonal shifts natural to agriculture, moving between abundance and scarcity as the seasons come and go.
The length of the day, the strength of the sun, and the amount of rainfall all play a role in how quickly and reliably a crop will grow. Each season has a particular effect, and certain types of crops grow better in certain seasons. Here in Wisconsin, our growing season is relatively short compared to the rest of the nation. This is the biggest reason many vegetable growers in the northern climates use greenhouses and other season extension tools.
Within the last 10 years, many small farms have begun filling these seasonal gaps with microgreens. Microgreens are simply seeds that are sprouted and harvested prematurely. Although small, the greens are packed with nutrients and flavor, and are convenient to add as a garnish to any dish, or to add a nutritious punch to a smoothie.
When Gwenyn Hill started producing microgreens in 2020, the decision was made to use whatever space could be found in our greenhouse. Over the next two seasons, the microgreens were grown from May to October, going to the farmers market, the Farmstand and to CSA members during the spring and summer shares.
Over this winter season, after all the crops in the field had been harvested and the root cellar was slowly emptying, the idea of growing microgreens indoors began to take shape. This idea acquiesced with the arrival of the new orchard manager Ben Kraus, who coincidentally had previously managed an indoor microgreens enterprise. With some expert guidance and a few new pieces of equipment, Gwenyn Hill Farm began growing microgreens indoors for the 2023 season.
During our planning for this new microgreens growing season, we began researching ways to meet a goal of reducing waste by eliminating as much packaging material as possible. By not harvesting our microgreens and instead offering a growing “square”, we could provide healthy, living greens without the need of a disposable plastic container. Further research into microgreens growing taught us that there are many different types of media you can grow your microgreens in, not just soil. To make this idea more practical we chose to use thin, flexible hemp mats as our growing medium instead of using soil.
As we continued to refine our growing system, our goal to reduce waste abruptly clashed with our goal of remaining true to our organic roots. Unfortunately, the hemp mats we chose to grow on are not currently recognized as an allowable input by the USDA Organic Program, meaning that the microgreens that we grow on these mats are not certified organic. Because both of these goals are important to our farm, we may be doing some more research and changing our microgreens system again in the future.
This winter I was designated the Microgreens Lead. Being a new farmer, I have really appreciated the learning opportunities that have come with this change to our microgreens enterprise. It has given me a chance to take part in every aspect of production as well as getting a better understanding of what our community wants and needs.
This new enterprise has shown some great promise, giving our farm the ability to offer the community fresh, healthy and tasty veggies any time of the year.
Brian Randall is a second-year Organic Vegetable Farm Manager Apprentice at Gwenyn Hill Farm.