Where vertical farming stacks up – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Californian hydroponics and microgreens
In California, biologist Ron Mitchell of Local Greens is perfecting the science of growing microgreens minus soil, organically, and minus much water
This Halloween we all looked scary – pink-eyed, coughing, dead sober.
Weeks of Wine Country wildfires and $7 billion of damage to the wine and cannabis harvests made wines taste smoky and weed scarce. Hardly how things ought to be here.
But one harvest that will never be at fire risk were the microgreens sprouted in an East Bay bunker vertical “farm”.
This is where biologist Ron Mitchell of Local Greens is perfecting the science of growing microgreens minus soil, organically, and minus much water.
For decades, the organic gospel has dictated that all things “baby” must rule in the Californian kitchen – cuter, tastier, just radiating pizazz. Soon it may be the closest thing we have to a religion.
And it’s Alice Waters’ fault. Our “Chez Panisse” diva is all about organic baby greens. She’s even asked the Whole Foods chain – now owned by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos – to introduce indoor farmers’ markets.
She’s also convinced Michelle Obama to spread the word. (She was here recently to talk about education and nutrition to Dreamforce.)
This “baby” worship peaks with microgreens: nutrient-rich mini-bombs of tastocity. Think emerald confetti with extra oomph.
Microgreens are the joy-sparking newborns of high-end cuisine.
Micro-chives the size of a kitten’s whiskers taste more peppery than their elders, claim foodies. Micro-broccoli is so intense it makes any cress look crass.
They accent sauces, soups, salads, sandwiches, and “tiny is so appealing”, gushes the superchef at San Francisco’s five-star Masa. No chopping, just grab a fistful. “They look like someone painted them, they’re perfect.”
His method of enhancing our future diet (if we have a future) is an indoor farm little bigger than a single-storey garage
Sprouting microgreens also means no earth, no pests, a few buckets of home-prescribed nutrients, and less labour. Rather than gourmet extras, Ron considers them “paleo” grazing food – nutrition on the run.
Inside his sterile man-cave of peas and sprouts in deepest Berkeley, Ron weaves his magic alchemy, with science, computers, nutrients, and formulae over mini-arugula, sunflower “protein crunch” of kale, peas, broccoli, extra-robust basil and Vermacompost (“Worm Tea”), plus water, very little, and sometimes LED lamps of his own invention.
His method of enhancing our future diet (if we have a future) is an indoor farm little bigger than a single-storey garage.
Using 1 per cent of normal water and 2 per cent of power, he expends far less time and effort than wineries. Microgreen harvests take under a week and may entail nail scissors. Fires, droughts and flood? Irrelevant.
Growing rooms are “clean rooms,” with disinfectant trays, hospital booties, and particle-filtered air. Ron’s dog Max – shelter trophy of the year – whines outside the door, forbidden to enter.
Inside, floor-to-ceiling stacks of second-day peas climb one side, while gem-sized sprouts tower up the other. Next door, Ron’s special LED lights spotlight vertically clambering turbo-basil – neon-green, super-pungent, and growing out of season, bless it.
One sniff, and I’m refining my pesto and fine-tuning Insalata Caprese.
A week later it’s still in use as an air freshener. Ron rattles my cook’s heart by saying he just likes to roll it into tubes and eat it raw.
His heady idealism crashed like a soufflé in a draft when a rival stole Ron’s nutrient plant recipes
Back in the 1970s, Ron’s professor and mentor Dr Droll sprouted seeds and shoots inside a trailer attached to Berkeley’s farm campus out in Antioch. Hydroponics were the brave new thing back then, with the doctor teaching him everything he knew. “We were going to grow everything! And save the world!”
Captivated by the romance of future-food, Ron created a private notebook of nutrients, from peppery mini-arugula and crunchy kale protein mix to his infamous worm “tea” or Vermocompost (a “secret sauce” fertiliser).
But his heady idealism crashed like a soufflé in a draft when a rival stole Ron’s nutrient plant recipes. Luckily he’d coded them and was able to smuggle them over to Hawaii and start his own microgreens farm in tumbledown Hilo greenhouses.
Years later he was sadder and wiser – “Hawaii is muddy, muggy, buggy!” After selling his business to his employees (who are still running it), he returned and launched Local Greens with his daughter. (Son Rio stayed to become Hawaii’s top gourmet chef.)
At Whole Foods, Local Greens takes up a section, jostled by other “future foods”: mushroom or turmeric tea, mint-elderflower bubbly, crab burritos, paleo plant-burgers and pickled watermelon.
So the future of microgreens is looking rosier. Ron’s empire may expand beyond other “future foods,” and add more crunch to your lunch.
In wistful moments he dreams of opening a Rancho Mirage branch of Local Greens, with skywalks, growing towers, T-shirts, gift shop, and worm tea. A theme park with mustard and cress sandwiches at Worm Tearooms?
So, dear Alice, we’re fighting climate change, cudgeling our last remaining brain cells and pondering future nutrition, like you told us to. Take that, climate change-deniers!