Little Greens Don’t Go A Long Way
by Tony Rosenfeld
There is a strain of restaurant fine dining that revels in, if not outright celebrates, the efficiency of high-end food transport in our modern global village. That slab of tuna on your plate, you will be told, was flown in last night from Hawaii. The filet of Kobe beef came special from Japan. And those fresh truffles you’ve been eying on the tagliatelle? Yup, sniffed out in the Italian countryside last week. This roaming approach to gastronomy may be alluring, but it clashes wildly with the widening push to eat local and that movement’s more comprehensive angle: counting the carbon expense of each ingredient on your dinner plate. With all of this taken into account, that tuna or Kobe may cost a whole lot of petroleum and guilt, too.
Until about five years ago, the microgreens at Sid Wainer & Sons of New Bedford were one of these sorts of problematic extravagances, an expensive product that traveled a long way to be eaten. As their name suggests, microgreens are ridiculously tiny. Think of them as leafy tadpoles compared to the baby greens which stock most popular mesclun or spring salad mixes. At the start of this decade, microgreens came into vogue with New York City and Boston chefs as a fancy finishing garnish. Sid Wainer, as a high-end produce and specialty foods company, did a brisk business with them, but that was part of the problem. The company’s supplier was in California and as the demand for microgreens quickly rose, Sid fought the clock (and incurred quite a carbon footprint) to have the product overnighted each day, something that wasn’t even possible for Monday orders.
Of course, Sid would have preferred to purchase the greens locally, but local farmers had no experience growing them. So the company, now presided over by the founder’s grandson, Dr. Henry B. Wainer, decided to teach the farmers how. They would need to build a greenhouse as a training grounds and started looking for space. Good fortune struck in the form of an abandoned lot a couple of blocks from Sid’s downtown New Bedford facility. Henry envisioned that the 10-acre tract of land, officially designated a brownfield site, could become a green oasis in the middle of the city. The company successfully petitioned local and state agencies, and by December 2004, Sid was officially in the microgreens-growing business.
To run the greenhouse, Sid hired Dave Rose, a meticulous local farmer with years of experience working in greenhouses. Over the five years since, most days toiling alone in the big bright space, Dave has been the driving force that has helped Sid move its supply chain of microgreens almost exclusively to within miles of its New Bedford facility. The greenhouse on the abandoned lot may only produce about two percent of the microgreens that Sid Wainer sells, but it has become a vital testing ground for experimenting with micro-greens (Sid Wainer now sells over 30 varieties) as well as other vegetables (fig and tomatoes plants are some of the current subjects). The space also serves as a teaching center, both for local farmers to pick up on the intricacies of Dave’s practices, and for restaurant chefs to understand the work that goes into their lovely produce. Some tricks Dave has had to learn on the fly, like how to harvest the toothpick-sized greens. He started out snipping the greens by hand, a small bunch at a time, before realizing that that approach would take forever and physically ruin him. After tinkering for a bit, Dave pimped out a hedge trimmer with a tray attachment to catch the falling greens. After further testing, Rose learned that the trimmer must be a Black & Decker, as the other brands tended to damage the greens.
The greens themselves are planted on 78 6 x 12-foot growing beds. Each table contains about 200,000 seeds and is perched on raised casters so it can easily be slid around. Though Rose tries to keep the temperature in the greenhouse around 72°F year, there is seasonality to the growing seasons. It takes only seven days in the height of summer for microgreens like mizuna, pea leaf, ruby radish, and basil microgreens to reach maturity. But in the dead of winter, the hardier leaves which Dave must grow, like Red Russian kale and tat soi, can take up to one month to grow.
Regardless of the season, the fact that these microgreens are now grown close by makes them something for Sid to feel good about selling. Of the many luxuries in the food world, ones that are local, like Sid’s microgreens, are easiest to enjoy.