Story and Photos by Maggie Chang
Down Tremont Street, it’s easy to find plenty of take-out restaurants, convenience stores, hair salons, and old wooden-door houses. It’s not easy, however, to find an urban farm that supplies fresh, organic produce to local restaurants, tucked inside the underground living room of a college graduate. That farm, located just a few blocks from campus, is the Boston Microgreens, founded by Northeastern alumnus Oliver Homberg in January of 2018.
Oliver has always harbored a passion for plants. Initially, his hobby started with growing various crops and vegetables in the house’s outdoor garden. However, it wasn’t long until he found his focus. After being inspired by a YouTube video, Oliver decided to try his hand at indoor microgreen farming. “We dropped $200 dollars, bought a rack and some lights, and just started growing,” Oliver explains. “The beginning stages were tough… it took a lot of trial and error. The good thing is they grow so fast, two weeks and you’re starting anew.” Soon enough, the entire living room of their apartment was filled with racks of leafy trays and bright fluorescent grow lights; the beginnings of a company started to take form.
Oliver began establishing partnerships with restaurants by pitching his product directly to restaurant chefs. “Most times, the product would just sell itself. Good chefs, people who know their stuff, can see what’s good and what’s not,” Oliver said, brimming with pride.
“The first time we sold our product, I was like, ‘hey, this could be something.’ Not this something,” he said, gesturing to the urban farming space, “but you know, a little pocket money on the side.” Now, the Boston Microgreens supplies over 20 restaurants with fresh microgreens weekly. The company strives to maintain a close relationship to the chefs, making sure to communicate and match each restaurant’s requirements. The Boston Microgreens offers a personal touch that not many other places offer. “Nobody else can be like, ‘you want your pea shoots 2 and a half inches long every Tuesday and Thursday? We got you.’” Oliver says.
The whole process only takes a couple of weeks, from germination to harvest. First, trays of soil are seeded and kept in a humid, dark environment for a few days, until pale yellow-white sprouts begin to poke out of the soil. From there, they are exposed to light so that the cotyledon, or embryonic leaf, can begin photosynthesizing chemical energy. In this stage, the plant absorbs nutrients from the soil and develops its flavor. The microgreen is harvested a few weeks later, when the plant is still only a couple inches tall and only a few mature leaves have emerged.
Natalie Wannamaker, a Northeastern student on co-op with the company, is in charge of most of the plant maintenance. She explains, “Basil is super finicky, if you over-water it a little bit, it’ll just die. Radish, on the other hand, is almost impossible to over-water.” The growing process requires an incredible amount of care and attention to detail. Everything from the soil depth to the light exposure to the watering schedule is optimized for each plant. “Each seed is a little different,” she says.
The daikon and purple sango radish mix is their most highly demanded product, with its plush leaves and vibrant purple/green color. The plant has a fresh and sweet flavor with a hint of spiciness, just like an actual radish root would. The dwarf pea shoots had a crisp, juicy texture and pleasantly sweet taste. Mizuna mustard, Russian kale, red shiso, bulls-blood beets, and several other types of microgreens lined the trays on the racks. While touring the facility, sampling of microgreens was enthusiastically encouraged, and leaves were plucked straight from their trays. The large-lobed nasturtium stood out in particular, as it packed a peppery punch that one would not expect from such a small plant. It was clear that Oliver held a lot of pride in the quality of the plants that he grew and the flavor that they yielded.
To see how an urban farm could exist so close to the heart of the city, I visited that unassuming house on Tremont in which the company was started. Upon walking in, the first thing that caught my attention was the humidity. I could feel the water molecules clinging to the air, and the slight earthy smell that came with it. “Ah, there’s the humidity that we know and love,” Oliver said as we descended the steps. I immediately noticed the towering racks of microgreens. Six layers tall and illuminated by blinding white light, dozens of trays of soil and leafy greens stood stacked in the corner. Past the racks and further back in the house were the living room and kitchen, seemingly ordinarily furnished. Against the farthest wall, however, were even more racks of microgreens, fluorescent lights, and a large black germination tent. Filtration and ventilation systems ran through the walls of the living room. I imagined what waking up next to a forest of tiny plants felt like, cooking with your own personal garden just a few feet away.
The company has just recently relocated to a larger facility in South Boston, but Oliver’s house still displays evidence of the agricultural venture. Now, the company is working on optimizing and perfecting their growing techniques in order to accommodate their growing number of partnerships. Future possibilities include community outreach through education, or perhaps expansion into other cities. Currently, Oliver is working on implementing technology to help monitor the growing process of the plants. Moisture sensors and barcode tags can help the team keep track of the rapidly expanding number of trays, and a team is working on developing an app that will allow the farmers to run the farm remotely. However, amidst all this change and expansion, the company continues to supply high-quality, organically grown produce to their partners around Boston. “The technology is obviously to increase our efficiency,” Oliver says, “but ultimately: growing and selling microgreens. That’s what’s important.”
Though the plant itself is small, microgreens are extremely nutritionally dense and carry the full-bodied flavor of the mature crop in just its tiny stems and leaves. Since they are so delicate, they are usually consumed uncooked or just lightly wilted. While it might not be practical to eat a salad of just microgreens, they are a wonderful way to add an extra kick of nutrition to any dish. Since they are so flavorful, it makes salad dressing a little redundant. That being said, a little lemon juice and olive oil never hurt!
Spring Green-and-Purple Salad
- 2 cups of baby spinach
- Half a green radish*
- 1 purple yam*
- 1 head of broccoli
- 1 cup snap peas
- 1 egg
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- Mizuna mustard microgreens
- Green wave mustard microgreens
*found in Asian grocery stores
- Peel the radish with a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, then slice into millimeter-thin circles.
- Steam the yam for 10 minutes until tender when poked with a fork, then cut into thick slices.
- Blanch the broccoli in boiling water until it turns bright green, then shock in ice water to keep it from overcooking.
- Add the white vinegar into a pot of barely simmering water (bubbles should be present but not rising rapidly).
- Swirl the water to make a vortex, and crack the egg into the center of the vortex.
- Lower the heat and let the egg white set before fishing it out with a slotted spoon.
- Assemble the salad with a baby spinach base, and add each ingredient to the bowl with the egg in the center.
- Top with mustard microgreens for a zesty spice, then optionally drizzle with lemon juice, salt, and olive oil for a simple dressing.