The Jolly Microgreen Giant

It’s a sunny day at Windfall Farms in upstate New York, and Morse Pitts, the owner, is trying to explain to me one of the many reasons his microgreens cost so damn much: every shoot sold comes from a single seed. A sunflower shoot can take up to three weeks to mature. New seeds are planted twice a week for the duration of winter—which, this past year, lasted four and a half months. To keep their white plastic bins stocked for the three days a week they’re at Manhattan greenmarkets, they planted over 750 pounds of seeds—for just one of their dozen-plus offerings. And a fifty-pound bag of sunflower seeds costs $185.

The farm grows almost everything you might want to toss in your Lilliputian salad: micro mesclun, mustard, pea greens, sunflower shoots, amaranth, buckwheat, Hong Vit radish, arugula. Plus, an assortment of edible flowers. The flavor of these greens is intense (also, they’re cute), and they’re considered the gold standard by New York chefs like George Mendes (Aldea), Howard Kalachnikoff (Gramercy Tavern), Eli Kaimeh (Per Se), Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wylie Dufresne, and on and on. But the real reason Pitts grows them is so that his dozen or so workers have something to do in the slow months.

In the not-slow months, they turn their focus to vegetables that grow in the field: cauliflower, kale, turnips, green daikon, wild spinach, purple radish, every color of carrot, Lutz green-leaf beets, eggplants, herbs, onions, spring garlic, zucchini, and squash.  (But the squash vegetable is second fiddle to its flower, which is their biggest draw.) There are also eggs from a few hundred prima donna chickens that get to snack on the microgreen remnants, and a new maple-syrup venture from a smattering of oaks.

Pitts tells me he wanted to be a farmer since the age of five.

I don’t know, I just always knew. The first thing I grew was mint. I made a little garden out of it, and mint is basically a weed, so it grew really well. And I was like, I like this. My mom made mint jelly with me.

The panoply of microgreens that Windfall Farms grows—greens that Arnie Marcella, chef de cuisine at Aldea, says he uses 80 percent for flavor and 20 percent for aesthetics—are predominantly grown in the winter. That’s the second reason these miniatures are so expensive. They’re grown in months that are (mostly) freezing.

Microgreens are kinda silly, but they get us through the winter. Labor costs more than anything. It’s basically, what is the bottom line so I can pay people an average of $12 an hour and not be losing the farm. What I make is less than $10 an hour, and I’m falling fast myself. We try to get them up but everything costs so much. The most horrible thing is that labor is taxed so high. You should tax things you don’t want. They want people to work in this country, but they tax it to death.

I like to say: Lose a fortune in the winter, make it back in the spring, and break even in the summer. And in autumn it all grows by itself and you can actually make money. Winter is our loss leader, so we try to do the more expensive things then, in a confined area. This winter we had so many sub-zero days that we were just cranking heat. It was crazy; we were in a very deep hole. The double-walled greenhouse is one stupid thing that’s actually working. I thought of making a box to cover the plants. And then my handyman was like, ‘Why don’t we build a greenhouse over a greenhouse?’

The old greenhouse at Windfall Farms was warmed to a luxurious 75 degrees by radiant heat, but not this one. Pitts steers my eyes to a series of rubber tubes running the length of the new, “more expensive” greenhouse.

Those water heaters heat water, which goes thru tiny tubes under the plant trays. I’m quite sure this works better then our radiant heater, and it’s right there to germinate the plants. It seems to be working. But then this whole thing cost $25K and another $15K for the outside structure.

In the old method, a typical month of heating ran the farm $1,400. Pitts will know more next winter if his double greenhouse idea affords them some financial wiggle room. Another expense is the blend of compost and soil they use, special dirt that can only be used once. That costs them over $10,000 for the year.

We have to buy the compost––the starting mix––we grow them in. We can’t use it a second time, but we do put some nutrients in it and some compost and use it for other things. We use Vermont Compost Company—it’s a seed starting mix—compost plus peat moss to start the seeds. They’re adding the nutrients for us, and it’s good but expensive. You know, it’s something we need to do so we just spend it. We have sling backs of it that lasts us the entire year. This year it didn't make it because winter kept going and going.

On top of all that, there’s still more handwork. The sprouts have to be cut, washed and delivered to the market––and always, always refrigerated. Because the farm divides everything up into precise sizes (small, medium, large) as well as shoot length, trimming them takes a trained eye. Hector Gonzalez, Windfall’s farm manager, has worked there for thirty years. He knows exactly what’s growing, where and when to cut it. So do his two brothers and their wives, who also work at the farm. Imperfect shoots get fed to the ducks and chickens. To cut the greens they use paring knives, which they buy in bulk from a kitchen supply shop. You can see the knives dotting the trays with their colorful handles. And the blades can’t be sharpened. Add that to the list of expenses.

We cut it a little bit at a time because we make sure they’re all good. We tried to find methods of cutting the whole tray but there’s always a few seed heads broken. If you cut across the leaf it molds, so all the leaves are cut at the base. They’re all individual leaves. If you cut by machinery it tends to slash across them and that will start to brown right away and it won’t be good in a few hours.

Seven trays of pea shoots take about twenty minutes to cut, and fill up only one bin destined for market. Then, they’re painstakingly washed three times in fresh-water baths. Gonzalez shows me how he scatters the shoots gently apart so they get squeaky clean. A few seed hulls float to the top. Any bugs spotted are no problem; they prove the farm doesn’t use a single ounce of chemical spray.

Three days a week the farmer’s head to the market (“The fees at the market are really cheap. It’s the best retail space on the planet for very little. If it was’t for that I wouldn’t be able to keep the farm”) in an economical diesel Mercedes-Benz Sprinter (“We gave up on the school bus, which kept breaking down and cost us more in gas”). Sometimes they make as many as five trips. That usually happens in the summer when Pitts follows up with a second drive to deliver more just-picked squash blossoms.

There are still a few more costs: one is those fancy Ziploc baggies they give you to stash your greens, plus the plastic clamshells their edible flowers come in. Both are used because they are the best way to store the breakable and perishable goods, for both farmer and shopper. But those bags aren’t cheap. And, finally, in summer, all that sunshine comes with a downside. At the market, in order to keep the greens snappy and fresh, the staff put ice in the bins. I asked Pitts how much, and he says, “a ridiculous amount.”

We can be thankful that Windfall Farms shows up at the market every week, even in the dead of winter, but we can all agree that the warmer seasons are the best months for produce. “We use them throughout the spring and summer, but you won’t see them on our menu during the rest of the year,” says chef Daniel Humm, who uses their greens because they’re full of flavor. Not every chef wants to pay Windfall Farms prices, like Howard Kalachnikoff, who uses Liberty Gardens and Blue Moon Acres instead. And if you want to point the finger at New York being the most expensive place on earth, forget it. Seattle chef Garrett Melkonian of Mamnoon, says his micro greens cost $27 for a four-ounce box.

Whether you buy the greens at Windfall Farms or not that’s fine with Pitts.

Basically we sell it for as much as we can and we try to get people paid at over $12 an hour. But, eat the ones you enjoy eating because if you don't then you’re not eating them. If you don't eat them, they’re not nutritious.

Originally published for Lucky Peach.