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Macro vision
Microgreens farmers acting locally, thinking globally

By REBECCA KONYA
Photos by Dan Bishop

March 2014

Hillery and Tony Farrell

Dressed head-to-toe in khaki including his signature boonie hat; Tony Farrell looks ready to dig in the dirt. But the dirt this Milwaukee resident digs in isn’t in his backyard — it’s in compost bins stacked floor-to-ceiling in his kitchen.

Farrell and his wife, Hillery, launched Farmer Tony’s Mission Greens in October. Their urban farm — devoted to growing microgreens — is set up in the dining area of the 1,400-square-foot apartment the couple share with their two sons. In the living room, several more trays of experimental microgreens line a shelving unit set up in front of the south-facing patio doors.

Currently, Farrell is harvesting upwards of 300 pounds of microgreens per month. "People don’t understand how we can produce so much," Farrell says. "It’s amazing what you can do in a small space."

Farrell’s venture into urban farming took root in February 2010 after his wife returned from a missionary trip to Kenya. She was dismayed by the number of starving children she witnessed. "It was heartbreaking," she says, remembering one little girl in particular named Hilda who was the last to eat — if she got any food at all — because she was deaf.

Farrell was so bothered by his wife’s experience that he felt the need to do something. He enrolled in classes at Growing Power, completing the organization’s Commercial Urban Agriculture program in 2012. Last year he received certification from the Victory Garden Initiative’s Food Leader and Permaculture Design programs.

But it was Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, who finally spurred Farrell into action. "I was at a loss as to how to start," Farrell says. "But he kept telling me to ‘just start something, anything.’"

It was all the motivation Farrell needed. He began experimenting with vermicomposting, a process that uses worms to turn organic waste into soil. Today Farrell’s operation relies on eight worm bins, which create the rich, nutrient-dense soil he uses to grow his microgreens — young edible plants that are typically harvested within 14 days of germination.

Farrell says he chose microgreens because it promised to be the most economically sustainable crop. He primarily grows sunflower microgreens, wheat grass and pea shoots, which he starts from organic seeds. "I’ve also been experimenting with arugula."

Since people often are unsure of what to do with microgreens other than throw them on salads, the Farrells have developed several recipes like sunflower super juice and sunflower pesto pasta. "We’ve found you can substitute microgreens in any recipe that calls for chopped spinach," Farrell says.

The Farrells sell their microgreens to customers on a subscription basis and at the Riverwest Winter Gardener’s Market. Ideally, though, the couple want to bring microgreens to food deserts in cities throughout the United States and abroad. "We want to encourage, educate and equip others to start their own microfarms," Farrell says.

Farrell’s vision is already taking shape. In February, he partnered with the UW-Extension to launch a job training program for youth. The initiative focuses on microgreen production and urban farming with the goal of providing local farming business ownership opportunities.

Microgreens Recipe
Sunflower Salsa Verde

16 ounces sunflower microgreens, pureed
6 to 8 tomatillos
1 medium onion chopped
1/4 bunch of cilantro chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 jalapeno peppers chopped, seeds intact
7 serrano peppers chopped, seeds intact

Combine ingredients in food processor or blender and pulse until all ingredients are finely chopped and mixed. Allow to sit overnight and drain excess liquid. Serve with chips.




This story ran in the October 2013 issue of: