If you’ve bought Local Greens products at the new Berkeley Whole Foods, you couldn’t get any more local; they are literally grown right around the corner. But more than that, you are buying a product that its founders hope is revolutionizing how food could be grown in the future.
All of their products are grown hydroponically, which means in water, with no soil, in about 2,200 square feet of space in their Berkeley indoor warehouse. Because products are grown vertically, on racks, Local Greens is growing seven times the amount of what could be grown in the same area outside. And because they are indoors, they don’t have to worry about pests. They use LED lighting and don’t need heavy tools which rely on energy.
Unlike a farm, which can’t sell some of its produce for cosmetic reasons, everything in the Local Greens warehouse grows consistently, so there is no waste. And at a time of great drought, they use about half the amount of water, 5,500 gallons, to be exact, that the average California household uses in one month, 10,000 gallons on average, to grow almost 1,000 pounds of food.
“I love to boast about our water usage,” said Faye Mitchell, co-founder of the company. “It’s a really smart way to use water; we keep re-circulating and reusing it.”
Local Greens began selling their microgreens, wheatgrass, basil and sprouted bean mix at the Whole Foods in Oakland and Berkeley in April. It has since expanded to those in San Francisco and Mill Valley, and since then, “we’re having a hard time keeping up with demand,” said Faye.
A family-owned business, the model is based on the knowledge of Santa Rosa native and co-founder Ron Mitchell, Faye’s father, who learned hydroponic farming first in Oakley, where, as a young man in the early ‘70s, he honed his skills working in a hydroponic greenhouse with UC Berkeley professor Paul Droll, an expert in the field. Its exact growing methods are a proprietary secret.
After a few years, Ron took his family and settled on the Big Island of Hawaii, where after growing sprouts for a local health food store, he founded and ran a hydroponic farm called Lone Palm. He ran it for 20 years, selling the Kapaau-based company to his employees when he decided to move back to the mainland. It remains in operation, with Ron noting “they still do almost everything exactly the same way, which is pretty cool.”
After consulting for a few hydroponic companies in the Bay Area, the family decided to invest their own savings into Local Greens (Mitchell’s stepson, Nick Corso, is involved in the family business as well, on the sales end.)
While they considered looking for investors, they decided against it: “We did not identify the type of people we wanted to become such intimate partners with us,” Faye explained.
While microgreens are considered a darling of chefs because they make a beautiful garnish, they are becoming more popular among the public too.
“In some cases, their nutrients are 50 times more than the actual plant,” said Ron, “with a lot having 10 times more nutrients, which is why they are described as nutrient-dense. They are crunchy and flavorful, and you can eat them raw or cooked.”
Unlike sprouts, which are sold with their roots attached, microgreens grow from seedlings for nine to ten days, and then are cut off from their roots and packaged.
And while most people are used to alfalfa or sunflower sprouts, they are surprised to taste the actual plant in a microgreen. “People comment about how ours have a really distinctive flavor,” said Ron, adding that when it comes to their wheatgrass, “everyone who tastes it asks whether we add sugar to it.” (They don’t.)
Right now Local Greens’ line-up includes broccoli, kale, radish, sunflower microgreens, and pea shoots. Their sprouted bean mix is high in protein, and can be tossed into salads for added crunch, or lightly cooked. And unlike the basil that appears year-round in stores that is grown in Mexico, they can easily grow it year-round in the warehouse.
Next, they plan to venture into growing living lettuces, and they are crowd-funding a campaign to buy the vertical racks needed to grow lettuce, starting immediately.
While most of their microgreens have a shelf-life of over two weeks (and their own drivers visit the stores twice a week to exchange those that are past their prime) living lettuce can sometimes last up to four weeks.
“When you leave the roots on, you can even keep it on your counter,” said Ron. “We’ve kept it for four weeks, and while it doesn’t look like it did on day one, you can’t tell between day 13 and 30, it’s not degrading at all.”
Local Greens is not the only urban farm in West Berkeley. Urban Adamah, an organization that integrates Jewish traditions, environmental education, mindfulness and social action, is currently developing two acres at Sixth and Harrison streets as a community farm.
While Local Greens plans to expand into other markets eventually, they’d also like to start opening new warehouses as they grow, each one in an urban area, that can supply the markets surrounding it.
“This is the prototype for what we want to see in every urban center,” said Faye. “Once we exhaust the markets in a 20 mile radius with this facility, we hope to duplicate this in South San Francisco to cover that area, so once we’re ready to do that kind of expansion, we’ll go looking for investors, because we’ve eliminated the risk for them.”
Although Faye Mitchell’s education did not prepare her for running a family business, its mission convinced her that this is what she should be doing.
Growing up in Hawaii with her father farming hydroponically, she didn’t give it much thought, she said. But now that she’s a mother of two, things have changed.
“I’m into clean eating and all the things that come with it,” she said. “Like many of us, I’m so much more conscious of the impact business have on the environment and I want to be part of it. It’s such a responsible way to produce food, in such a nutrient-dense quality as well and have it available so close to the stores, it just makes so much sense. I’m certain this will be the way of the future.”
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