MICROGREENS IN THE AGE OF MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION
The Agro-Industrial Complex and the Green Revolution that birthed it—making it possible to feed billions of people while letting billions more starve (while also decimating ecosystems and timeless human horticultural mores across the world)—is probably the most poignant example of how we have let capitalism utterly destroy and reinvent our foodways purely for profit and exploitation.
But I contend that there is a close runner-up in the battle for bragging rights to food culture exploitation, and it is microgreens: tiny plants that one can grow from seed to harvest in as little as a week. It is less microgreens themselves, but rather the method and manner of their commodification.
I would like to make it clear before we go further that I am all for you growing your own sprouts. And I promise we’ll get back to that. I’m even for those of you small business humans who are still doing it professionally. I’m glad you’re making it. Clearly my qualms with the sprout are leaking out of me fast here, but I stay a fan of any small food-growing business no matter what you’re slinging.
As of recently, microgreens purveyors of most stripes seem to prefer the word “sprout” to “microgreen.” This is either because the ‘90s have returned and that’s what we used to call them back in the day, or because the term “microgreens” has become so associated with silly schemes and bad business practices that the schemers and entrepreneurs have gotten wise to dropping the term.
Microgreens, when that was the preferred nomenclature, went through an awkward boom-bust era akin to Zennial dropshipping pyramid schemes, Dogecoin, and other Jordan Peterson stan-adjacent-get-rich-quick-young-toxic-alpha-bro-life-coach type stuff. In the early 2010s, restaurants around the country were obsessed with microgreens, and many established farmers and farmer types learned they could supplement their eternally struggling industry with microgreens. In contrast to proper produce, microgreens cost very little and grow very quickly, especially relative to mature plants, and can be sold for an obscene amount of money. For example, when I was doing this very thing, I would sell arugula for $6 a pound. Meanwhile, I was able to sell arugula microgreens for $16 an ounce at worst, and $35 per ounce at best.
As with most get-rich-quick shenanigans, the economy around this new hot commodity was not built to last. Basically, chefs were paying crazy dollars for microgreens because they thought they were cool. But microgreens were very expensive. And chefs were unable to pass that cost down to consumers because are YOU going to pay an extra $3 for a seared snapper with cracked wheat tabouli, delicata squash, zhoug, and black lentil hummus just because there are a few extremely cute and tiny kale leaves on top of your fish? The second and perhaps more obvious thing (and the part that I most hated) was that, where a need was already filled to capacity, the hidden hand of the market shoved a bunch of faux entrepreneurial jerks—with no interest in making the world a better place through food or economy—into the mix. Suddenly, chefs across the nation were turning down, daily, multiple strangers banging on their backdoors trying to get rich quick on baby plants, which only soured the market further.
The second reason I am not a fan of sprouts is essentially the same as the first, just representative of a slightly different part of consumer society spoiled generations ago. In a world full of ridiculously overpriced cute indoor plant-growing gimmicks and knicknacks, DIY sprout kits and programs are Public Enemy #1. And they are still very much a part of garden culture. It is maximally exploitative of our lazy hopefulness of which those evil microgreens purveyors of yore are the shadow side. As a matter of fact, it is probably the same shadowy people selling you their hootenanny a decade later, still trying to get too rich too quick by scamming all the wrong people in all the wrong ways. I will repeat here: I am so not against you growing sprouts. I am for it. You should. At home. And I am about to tell you why and more importantly, how. But do not spend money on a prefab kit or a monthly membership or anything like this, under any circumstances.
All you need for microgreens is a flat tray (it doesn’t even need to have holes in it), some perfectly decent potting soil, access to water, a gentle way to distribute it, and some sprout seeds. As a grower of plants, I buy the sorts of trays I speak of in bulk, which you can get cheap at greenhousemegastore.com. But any flat and rimmed surface will do, truly. For dirt, I would recommend some organic potting soil with added nutrients, such as Happy Frog from FoxFarm, but there are plenty of options out there. And as for seeds, you ought to buy them specifically for sprouting. This is partially about genetics, in that some sprout seeds are bred to sprout extra early and not necessarily to save their best traits for adulthood. Moreso, seeds sold for sprouting are a marketing ploy, but in your favor this time. You can totally grow not-sprout seeds as sprouts, it’s just that bags of sprouting seeds tend to come in bulk and be exorbitantly cheaper. I would recommend buying from johnnyseeds.com and looking at their “sprouting seeds” or “microgreens” sections.
Lovingly dump about a centimeter of soil, lay it as evenly as possible in your tray, then water that dirt. Spread your sprout seeds liberally, densely, and somewhat evenly, and then sprinkle a touch more (really just a touch) dirt on top of them. Do not water again immediately. Wait a couple of days to water again, and then water once a day, every two to three days thereafter. Depending on what you’re growing, you should have plants in eight to 14 days. Harvest them with scissors. You can either cut as you desire to use your babies for food, or cut them all at once and store them in the fridge as you would any other produce item. They’ll last a long time because they have been cut fresh—a couple of weeks at least. When you have harvested all your babies, do NOT reuse the soil in your tray, but definitely go ahead and use that tray forever. The soil can get fungal and weird if it gets to hang out too long, and this can be bad for infant plants. Put it in your compost though!
Grow sprouts because you don’t need space or even light to do so. You don’t need lids or advice or (particularly) boutique soil. Sprouts are extremely nutritious in real life, very possible for the blackest thumb in the tiniest house without a modicum of natural light, or heck, even electric light. I absolutely do not support the sprout industry, but I absolutely encourage you to grow your own sprouts, especially if you are new to the game and thought you didn’t have the tools for the job. You are the only tool you need.