By Matt Reese
Clad in jeans that were torn when she bought them and neon pink rubber work boots, Erica Byrd does not necessarily match the typical idea of a farmer from Ohio. But, she never intended to be a typical farmer.
Byrd works at Waterfields LLC — a hydroponic supplier of premium microgreens based in Cincinnati to provide jobs and quality products to the community.
“I had no money for real. I was living from paycheck to paycheck. Then Waterfields called me. I never had heard of Waterfields but I knew I wanted to work here. I went to the interview and was amazed. I had to work here. I bugged them every day and I got the job. And from then, everything has gone up from there,” Byrd said. “I was just calling them plants for the first couple of months and I had to keep saying microgreens, microgreens, microgreens. I love it. I love watching the seeds grow to be teenagers, then into adults, then go off to the chefs. I never thought I’d be a farmer.”
Waterfields started with five partners and no employees as a social mission in Cincinnati and has turned into a thriving agricultural enterprise.
“Cincinnati has some negative things attached to it like gun violence and poverty. Vic Garcia is a pediatric surgeon who kept seeing kids come in with gunshot wounds. He thought he could save more lives by addressing the root causes of what was going on as opposed to his work in the emergency room. He was a very accomplished surgeon and is a very smart and talented guy. He decided to put his effort into addressing these root causes,” said Daniel Klemens, who handles marketing for Waterfields. “One of the root causes of these problems is a lack of jobs and employment.”
And, one of the results of Garcia’s efforts is Waterfields, created to provide jobs in parts of the city with limited employment opportunities through a successful business model. The hydroponic production of microgreens seemed like it could be a good fit for the area.
“We started knocking on doors of restaurants to talk with chefs about the idea of them buying microgreens. We wanted to do the smallest viable test possible to see if it would work and it did. It just clicked. The Cincinnati restaurant scene was really picking up and the chefs were really helpful. There is community here and they supported us,” Klemens said. “We wanted to get people from that neighborhood, teach them agriculture and employ them with a meaningful living wage. We worked to identify people who wanted to work and we found them. We launched in November of 2013. We had seven customers and we really took off after that. We started this with $5,000 or $6,000 and leased an old warehouse in Lower Price Hill — there are no businesses there. There is a convenience store and that is it. It is a rough part of town. You wouldn’t walk around there.”
Because they were producing food, it was no small amount of work getting the old facility set up to meet Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) required for food safety.
“If you sell to distributors you have to have your GAP certification from the USDA.
It is lot of paperwork. We developed a system to use smart phones to track our trays. Each tray has a bar code. There is a lot of administrative stuff that goes along with food safety. It is work, but it opens significant doors,” he said. “In that first location, we built a room within the room we called a ‘bubble’ using vinyl to make it reasonably food safe. We got that first facility GAP certified, but it took a lot of work.”
Along with their social mission, the folks at Waterfields knew they needed to offer a superior product and top-notch customer service to be viable long-term.
“The chefs we work with were used to getting cut microgreens with a shelf life of five days. We came in with living microgreens and the shelf life is one to three weeks. We had a better tasting product that could be a meaningful ingredient on their plate. We had a product that could stand on its own besides the social issues. We got referrals all over. Today we sell to over 130 chefs just here in Cincinnati within the 275-loop. We deliver there in a truck. We also send products to Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, Chicago, and Nashville in a six-hour radius to chefs and other distributors, including Premier ProduceOne with warehouses in Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland,” Klemens said. “We started with just living microgreens. We seeded stuff and if it germinated well we went with it. We were growing 10 or 12 different microgreens at first. Today we have 35 to 40 different living microgreens, cut microgreens, edible flowers like viola, nasturtium, marigolds, and specialty lettuces. We focus on the best product for our customers.”
Many outside the culinary world may not know what microgreens are. Basically, they are just-sprouted plants that often have concentrated, unique flavors.
“There is a whole genetics side of microgreen seeds, but in many cases it is just regular seed grown and harvested early,” he said. “We do a lot of experimenting with different varieties and if they will work for us — cucumber sprouts, peas, radishes, cilantro and many others.”
The hydroponic production process starts with seeds planted in proprietary inert polyester grow media in a germination chamber. The germinated seeds are moved (still in the grow media) to grow rigs that contain shelving with levels of PVC channels. Water containing the necessary nutrients runs underneath the plants and grow lights are on top. Temperatures are kept around 68 degrees with a relative humidity of 70% to 75%.
“Depending on the variety, it will be in the germination chamber for three to five days with just water in a temperature and humidity controlled environment,” Klemens said. “They are delicate but quick cycling. Then in the grow rigs at just one facility there are about 800 to 1,000 10-inch by 20-inch trays a week and stuff is always going in an out. The quickest turn around is seven days from seed to out the door. The longer stuff can be 40 days, but generally we are looking at an average of two weeks per tray.”
Demand exploded for Waterfields products, particularly the still-living plants growing in the media. They also grow plants in the fields and greenhouses.
“We sell a lot of different ways. We sell the living 10 by 20 trays locally. We sell half trays too that are 10 by 10. We also sell cut products in 4 or 8 ounces and others are sold in mixes,” Klemens said. “Every season for the last three years we have done significant outdoor production in the city. The ground used to be farmed but hasn’t been for a while. It is tucked away. You turn down this gravel road in town and you are in this old farming district. We grow the flowers there and some of our specialty cuts. Some of it is started in greenhouses and a lot is just planted from seed or starts. The total field production is less than an acre. We have a greenhouse that is part of Diamond Oaks Vocational School and we fill their greenhouse space through an agreement we have. We have a second greenhouse in an old flower district that we lease. A lot of our production is in that greenhouse now. We have a total of five locations in production.”
In terms of the indoor production there have been multiple expansions.
“We expended twice now. We moved out of our 8th Street location at Lower Price Hill after we ran out of electrical capacity and couldn’t produce any more. We leased another space — an old slaughter house — with concrete floors, more electric and floor drains, but then we outgrew that and then leased our current 10,000 square foot facility that used to be a meat distributor,” he said. “The No. 1 goal is to have the same conditions year round and these are very well insulated facilities, which helps with that.”
The consistent, year-round production is an important part of meeting the needs of chefs but it is also important in maintaining year-round jobs for the community. Three of the initial five partners are now working full time jobs at Waterfields and the business has created additional jobs for seven people in the community.
“Most farmers need seasonal help. With our social mission we wanted full time workers and everyone we’ve hired has been from the communities in which we operate. It is important for us to provide that living wage job for them. We work with some non-profits that work with folks on their resumes and get them ready to work. As we have grown we’ve hired more people and their responsibilities have grown too. Our first employee now handles all of our outdoor lettuce production,” Klemens said. “We had one or two problems with some systemic issues with trying to get people out of poverty. Transportation for example, is an issue. It is very difficult for someone relying on bus transit in Cincinnati to get here so we try to work with folks to make it work.”
And for people like Erica Byrd, it has worked.
“Erica is the mother to all of these plants and she embraces that. We don’t hire folks to be in entry-level positions forever. We can train people the basics and then they can really be successful,” Klemens said. “Erica knows more about the plants than I do now and she is a role model for those around here. There is a ripple effect in her home community because of what she has learned working here. We have a product that can stand on its own and we also have this social issue behind us that lets us empower individuals to really become something. As much as we are growing plants, we are growing people.”