By Matt Reese
Believe it or not, growing microgreens is the easy part.
This was one of the first lessons learned by Ty Lilly after he started researching these tiny powerhouses for nutritionand flavor after being laid off from a lucrative career in software. Rather than search for another job he decided to create his own. Along with business and life partner Martha Channell, who had also recently lost her job at a soil testing lab, they decided — after extensive research — to jump into growing microgreens full time in 2019 as Seven Acre Farm.
They live on a unique, 7-acre wooded property in Dublin on the northwest side of Columbus in Franklin County anddecided to harness the advantages of their location for growing and delivering fresh, vegan microgreens within hours ofharvesting. Despite never really hearing of microgreens before, they discovered emerging and quickly growing demandfor these vegetable greens harvested just after the cotyledon leaves develop. Upscale chefs love including microgreens in salads and as flavorful additions to their creations, and more consumers are seeking them out for adding color, flavor,and nutrition to their meals at home.
“When we started in June of 2019, we were growing a few types and discovered that these things were actually pretty tasty,” Lilly said. “The more varieties we started growing the more we got into microgreens and this world just sort ofopened up for us. I bought a rack, some trays, soil and seed and started growing. The deeper I dug into it, the more I realized that growing was the easy part. It is the other stuff that makes it complex.”
Seven Acre Farm now sells around 42 different varieties of microgreens and over 10 custom blends that includesunflower, broccoli, basil, fava bean, mustards, cilantro, peas, sweet corn, and many others. Each of the varieties requires different moisture levels at different growth stages, different management practices, different seeding rates,growth times, temperatures, growing environments, packaging, labeling, and other production factors. Orders come in for varying amounts, blends, and packaging each day with delivery dates for products with different durations of production time. To grow to a necessary volume of microgreens to be financially sustainable requires a mind-spinning level of daily complexity to keep the right varieties growing and ready for harvest and packaging at the proper time tofulfill orders.
With this massive challenge in mind, Lilly quickly employed his background in software and IT. Channell joined inusing her knowledge of soil fertility.
“I wanted to tackle some of the scaling issues people have with this business with technology as soon as possible. WhenI first started this, I began building software and spreadsheets to track everything I was doing. We paid a lot of attention to the details early on before we got too inundated with the actual work to do, like we are now,” he said. “I trackeverything. I can tell you the seed lot of a particular package that was delivered to you.”
Now as orders come in, they are entered in the software that provides a daily list of tasks needing to be performed tofulfill them, including planting, management, harvest, packaging, and delivery.
“With the software that we built, the orders come in and the software tells us what to grow and when. If we have 2packages of arugula, 14 packages of peas and 7 packages of basil that need to be delivered on a specific date, thesoftware knows how long it takes to grow each of these types of microgreens and tells us when we need to plant. Then it tells us what to plant and how much to plant on a given day to have the harvest we need for our orders,” Lilly said. “As we take on more orders and grow more varieties, we necessarily need this asynchronicity and software intelligence to manage our operation effectively. What we plant changes every single day based on the orders we have coming in. We also grow slightly more than we need so we can take care of most one-off orders from our website, and for samples that we give to the restaurants or clients that we’re courting.”
With the software to guide them, Lilly and Channell work full time (and then some) implementing the daily tasks ofgrowing and marketing microgreens.
“We start with cleaned out trays. We then sanitize them and load them up with our custom soil mix. Then we seed themand water them according to our schedule and put them into our germination chamber. Then, once they are germinated,we put them under light — if they are a light loving variety — and harvest in a few days or a few weeks. Then we package them and send them out,” Lilly said. “We don’t use any compost or manures and our nutrient program is 100% plant based. Our products are vegan friendly from the soil up. We mix some of our nutrients into the soil before seedingwith the rest of the fertility being mixed with the water in our 100+ gallon reservoir that contains a mixing and aeration pump. This usually lasts us 2 to 3 days. We use 1020 greenhouse trays, so we water from below, but we use a custom built solution to ensure each variety receives the proper amount of water when it needs it. We use beneficial bacteria to fight off common problems. We use reverse osmosis water, so our water and soil begin as a blank slate. The microgreens we grow only get what we specifically decide to provide to them. Our nutrient program and custom hardware and software is kind of our secret sauce.”
The other real trick of efficient microgreen production is maximizing the growing space while growing a diverse arrayof crops and then managing them properly.
“I want to make sure all of my lights are filled all of the time. If the lights are on and there is not something underneathit, I am wasting electricity. Most growers use a big 4-foot by 2.5-foot tray on a rack that holds four 1020 greenhouse trays. The problem we discovered is that everything in that ‘super tray’ has to be the same type and the same age. A really young pea will drink less water than a mature pea,” Lilly said. “So if I have a super tray with mature and young peas, the mature pea is underwatered or the young pea is overwatered. When you start mixing varieties in the same super tray, nothing is getting watered right.”
As a result, there was plenty of tedious hand watering at Seven Acre Farm, but the use of technology further automates for an individual tray’s needs. Many varieties also may need to be harvested differently, though they typically are justcut with scissors or a knife.
“You grab a handful and cut them,” Channell said. “Some varieties, like sunflower, take longer. They are popular andthe price point is good, but it takes a lot of labor to harvest. We are just now getting to the point where we are harvesting enough to start building more efficient processes with that specific crop.”
Seven Acre Farm buys seed, packaging, soil, nutrients, and other inputs in bulk months ahead of time, working with a variety of suppliers. Finding the best suppliers was also a learning curve in the early days of the business.
In terms of marketing, the initial focus was restaurants.
“It is a quick way to ramp up and get name recognition, and restaurants buy more volume, so it is a quick way togenerate revenue. But with COVID, we lost every one of our clients but one in a matter of 3 days, and we already had everything grown and ready for harvest. We had all of this product and offered it to the community around us. We had to pivot in a matter of days to go from direct-to-restaurant to direct-to-consumer,” Channell said. “We had designed ourwebsite to work for restaurants and had to re-jigger everything to work for consumers, and we just started marketing to all the neighborhoods in our community. We obviously sell less at a time to individual consumers, but the stability itprovides us is key to our businesses survival while COVID still lingers. We also had to research and buy all newpackaging too.”
The one client Seven Acre Farm did not lose at that time was Market Wagon, an online farmers market designed toconnect consumers with local food. Demand through this service ramped up in the central Ohio market, which reallyhelped. In addition, Nextdoor.com and other social media platforms helped the small farm connect with thecommunity online and quickly market the products that would have otherwise been destined for area restaurants.
“We were very lucky. We posted on Nextdoor.com in the community and advertised more on Market Wagon, and theypicked up everything we were growing. We were able to pivot quickly and in a couple of weeks we were fully marketingdirectly to consumers. I won’t say there wasn’t a hit, but when you look at our revenue, it did not fall to the floor and then come back up. It stayed pretty good and kept climbing from there, but we had to go down a rabbit hole we weren’t quite ready to go down yet and basically started our business twice within the same year,” Lilly said. “Now restaurantsare starting to pick back up and it has been great to add that diversity back to our business. We found if we can embed ourselves into the community, it gives us a lot more stability. Now we have a better diversified portfolio of clients, and the ability to directly serve our community, which was our primary goal in the first place. Despite the initial headaches, it’s really been a great experience.”
The Market Wagon deliveries are taken to an area collection hub and the rest of Seven Acre Farm microgreens aretaken right to the restaurant or doorstep of their customers — subscriptions are grown to order and come with a 2- to 3-week shelf life.
“There are many things I enjoy about this, but ultimately we want to help people. Neither Martha nor I had been able tohelp people the way we wanted to while working for somebody else because there were always constraints and we werelimited to some extent. Helping people on a larger scale is important to us and we can do that with Seven Acre Farm.And I enjoy the technology and utilizing my background to automate something that ties all of this stuff together in building these systems. It has been an interesting ride and I think it will become even more interesting as we continue to grow Seven Acre Farm,” Lilly said. “Controlled environment agriculture is the future. We are providing the freshest andbest tasting hyper-local superfoods available in Central Ohio. We are excited to continue building and working toward multiple locations to better serve more communities with these amazing micro-sized superfoods.”
“And where else can you get grown-to-order superfoods delivered within hours of harvest?” Channell said. “It doesn’tget any fresher than that.”