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Micro-farming comes of age: How to grow crops in your kitchen

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Steve "Sproutman" Meyerowitz provides home growers with kits to grow Buckwheat crops. Micro greens and sprouts can be grown in just days on the windowsill. (Photographs by Steve Meyerowitz)

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Steve Meyerowitz likes his veggies fresh. Red Clover sprouts are so fresh, they're still growing on the dinner table. Micro greens and sprouts can be grown in just days on the windowsill. (Photographs by Steve Meyerowitz)

A farmer gazes out upon a lush field of greens. The arugula, amaranth and basil, which were neatly sowed days earlier, are ready for harvest. So the farmer readies a trusted harvesting tool: a pair of scissors.

Farming, once the domain of tractors and sprawling acreage, has come to the kitchen windowsill in the form of micro greens and sprouts, homegrown versions of the exotic greens found in trendier restaurants.

In recent years, micro greens have become a darling of haute cuisine. The infant shoots of lettuces, radishes and other vegetables are luxuries fine chefs everywhere have sought to add to their dishes. Now seed and garden companies are jumping on the trend, creating kits for the home.

“They’re fun. They’re pretty. We’re very much into creative cooking,” said Mary-Anne Durkee, a food writer who grows micro greens in her Alamo, Calif., home.

Tracy Lee, the horticulture manager for Cook’s Garden, an online garden supply company, says she isn’t aware of any companies selling micro green supplies before two and a half years ago. Cook’s Garden keeps an eye on restaurant trends and in recent years saw micro greens adorning plates everywhere. So Lee devised a collection of seeds of edible plants such as peas, Bull’s Blood beets and spinach, for the home chef to use.

“We had enormous success,” said Lee, of the initial product. While micro greens are a new trend, kitchen farming itself isn’t exactly new, said Steve “Sproutman” Meyerowitz, author of “Sproutman's Kitchen Garden Cookbook.” Sprout farming, which is essentially the same as growing micro greens but harvesting the plants earlier, became popular in the 1960s.

(The difference between sprouts and micro greens is small. Sprouts grow with just a rinsing of water, and micro greens, which are slightly more mature, must be planted.)

Easy to grow and packing a potent nutritional punch, sprouts remain popular. But it was the near-collapse of the sprout-growing industry that prompted some sellers to encourage kitchen agriculture.A salmonella outbreak attributed to alfalfa sprouts in the late 1990s hamstrung the industry.

Gil Frishman, who owns Sproutpeople.com with his wife, Lori Tooker, was growing sprouts in Wisconsin when the FDA shut down all of the state’s sprout producers. Frishman says he was the only Wisconsin producer to grow sprouts organically, and the FDA’s solution--to wash seeds in a light bleach mixture--wasn’t acceptable by his standards. He and Tooker moved their business to San Francisco and began selling seeds and sprouting equipment directly to consumers.

Now, Frishman sells mostly to home growers. “There’s more business nowadays, because people just know more about diet,” said Frishman. Consumers are also concerned about where food comes from, he said, and it’s hard to grow food more locally than in the kitchen.

“It’s the only form of agriculture still growing when you’re growing it in your kitchen and bringing it to your dinner table,” Meyerowitz said. There is a peak of nutrition, he said, that comes in the early stages when the plant is growing rapidly.

Customers of sprouts and micro greens usually fall into three categories, according to Frishman: nutrition foodies, raw food enthusiasts and gardeners. But, said Frishman, they get survivalists too; the idea of a crop that can be grown entirely at home appeals to those who foresee Armageddon on the horizon.

“They kind of freak us out,” he said of survivalists. But they can be good business. One customer, wary of the coming millennium, purchased $2,000 worth of seeds in 1999. Without him, said Frishman, the business, which had suffered from that year’s bad publicity, might not have made it through the year.

It may not be coincidence that Frishman found a home in San Francisco. Durkee, who lives 25 miles to the east says there is no shortage of growers in the area. “Food trends often start out here,” she said. “Healthy choices are really popular. Things like micro greens are very popular.” But not everyone is convinced micro greens will become a kitchen staple.

“It’s a small niche with some sex appeal,” said Adriana Gutierrez, of Green Cuisine, an online garden supplier in Birmingham, Ala. Micro greens are similar to sprouts, but she said micro greens are slightly more difficult to grow and appeal to a “unique grower population.”

Whether the fad will pass or not, other companies are looking to take advantage while it lasts. Koppert Cress USA is a Dutch company setting up shop in Lake Success, N.Y., with plans to market "micro vegetables," which seem to be just like micro greens, but come from exotic sources like Shiso Purple and Sakura Cress. The company sells the plants alive and in their growing medium, claiming to use natural cultivation methods. For now, the company focuses sales on restaurants, but the motive is clear: with sprouts and micro greens enticing foodies and chefs alike, they believe there is room for growth.

Lee, of Cook’s Garden, likened raising micro greens to “bonsai vegetable gardening,” and her company is planning for more growth. Besides selling micro green supplies to independent garden centers, she says they have also sold to major retailers like Loews, Target and Home Depot. That, she said, is the real sign that micro greens are catching on.

E-mail: cr2379@columbia.edu