If you want to grow your crops and sell them at high-end grocery stores in posh cities, how do you go about approaching them? What’s the first think you think about? What should you say? What should you not say?
Today we’re talking to microgreen grower Vincent Cunio of Agrarian Feast who managed to ramp up their microgreen production from 30 to 200 trays a week and filling in orders from big grocery stores in New York City.
Today’s Guest: Vincent Cuneo
Vincent Cunio started growing microgreens with his business partner, Luke. Having done extensive market research for months, they managed to grow their business from 30 microgreen trays to 200 in a short span of time.
In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart
- Diego opens the episode and introduces the week’s guest, Vincent Cuneo (00:30)
- The initial draw into microgreens (01:52)
- Expectations vs. reality of growing microgreens (03:41)
- Approaching market research and marketing opportunities for a microgreen operation (04:37)
- Scaling up and meeting demands for the products (08:47)
- The biggest challenge with starting to grow microgreens (10:48)
- The sales process and strategies that don’t work (12:21)
- Choosing which crops to grow and initially market (15:26)
- Products sold and products that aren’t sold (17:54)
- The percentage of product being bought back (20:56)
- Tinkering the packaging and presentation to make it more appealing (21:51)
- Playing around with the weight of products and the pricing (24:57)
- Seasonality with market demand and product offerings (28:58)
- Crops that sell well but are more difficult to grow (30:16)
- Chris Thoreau’s thoughts on selling at grocery stores in New York City (31:58)
- The model of buying back unsold products (36:04)
- Doing what works for your system: different arrangements for different stores (39:00)
- Flexibility of policies and paying attention to your product’s movement (40:48)
- Vincent’s mold issue with sunflower shoots (42:25)
- Chris’s process of assessing seeds (45:54)
- Things to consider when it comes to mold (49:02)
- Airflow: mixing the air as much as possible (54:35)
- Taking note of the tray depths (55:35)
- Keeping the airflow and temperature consistent (59:36)
- Considering getting an AC unit (01:01:31)
- Airflow options across the seasons (01:03:32)
- Tips on getting rid of pests on the crops (01:06:48)
- Managing the different cycle lengths of microgreens (01:11:05)
- Strategy on maintaining efficiency and appearance when harvesting (01:12:50)
- What it’s like growing many different crops in a single space (01:15:02)
- Thinking of how to go around the difficulties of growing cilantro (01:17:48)
- Experimenting with specialty crops and accommodating small, local restaurants (01:20:26)
- Accommodating your customer base while taking care not to burn out (01:23:23)
- Pea shoots: well-watered but not overwatered (01:25:02)
- Talking varieties, seeds, and suppliers (01:29:03)
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Diego: [00:00:01] When you sell microgreens to a grocery store, and just microgreens, what's important to get that business? What should you say when you go into the store, or maybe more importantly, what should you not say and what should you do? Today, it's all about growing microgreens and selling them to grocery stores with Vincent Cuneo.
Welcome to the world of farming small and farming smart. Today, I'm talking to microgreen grower, Vincent Cuneo, and Vincent�s somebody who's doing something a little bit unique relative to some of the past growers who I've talked to on the show. Vincent�s growing microgreens and he's selling them to higher-end grocery stores and family-owned grocery stores in the New York city market. And that's all he sells them. He doesn't sell them any other crops, just microgreens.
Today, Vincent is going to get into the whole process of selling to grocery stores, what it takes, what works, what doesn't and how he's had success using this model to grow his farm. Currently Vincent's producing over 200 trays a week, and all of that is going to those grocery stores in New York city.
But while sales are great, not everything is perfect. And he has some challenges on the growing side of things. And those challenges are another big part of this episode because later in the episode, microgreen grower, Chris Thoreau�s going to come on, and him and Vincent will talk through some of the issues and growing challenges than Vincent is having within his system. So today, it's a blend of sales and technical growing. Let's jump right into it, growing microgreens and selling them to grocery stores with Vincent Cuneo.
You�re a commercial microgreen farm right now. And a lot of people get into microgreens for different reasons. What was your draw into microgreens?
Vincent Cuneo: I suppose I wanted to start a small farm. But I want it to start now, I don't want you to start in three years from now. So we have to find something that would, get off the ground quickly and give us results quickly. So consider it a few different things. I grow another crop. I grow mushrooms on logs in the woods. And this is a very interesting crop, but it's a longer term, set up.
And I picked up the idea from, for the microgreens, online, through a variety of podcasts and YouTube contents. And it seemed to me that it could work. And so I did some market research. I live two hours Northwest of New York city. So I drove my market research mainly in New York city to see if there was an opportunity to do that.
And it turns out there is. There was, there is still, so we decided to make a go of it. And, we started, I grew the first microgreens in the summer and fall of 2016. And so now we are a little bit more than a year after that. And we have a running business.
Diego: [00:03:28] How is the reality of running a microgreens operation compared to what you thought it might from the podcasts that you heard from the YouTube videos that you saw?
Vincent Cuneo: Not very surprised by anything that we're doing here. Some security. Things are expected. The kinks are not that hard to figure out. It seems. I think we're very lucky because we have a good markets, New York city. It's just the beagle proximity. I think this is the type of operation that would be probably a lot more complicated to do, was a market that cannot spare those prices or just like a smaller markets. But that makes it fairly easy for us. It's in a way it's easier than some of those YouTube videos make it look.
Diego: Yeah. One thing I find interesting, and I think you're right about the market and the beneficial effects of having a big city there. When you did your market research, how did you go about that?
Because I know firsthand that's one area that a lot of people in this space struggle with not just make a ring growers, but vegetable growers. They might see a big city there and think, wow, that's a gold mine, but maybe there's already people selling there. Maybe there's other logistical reasons why it won't work when you.
If you go back to the beginning, when you first looked into this, when you started to dig into the New York city market and see if there was the chance to sell your product into it, what were you looking for specifically?
Vincent Cuneo: Repeatability and consistency. When I just started, I started working with a bunch of small restaurants in the area and it's great. It's fun. I grow them amazing crops and they make beautiful dishes with them, but they changed their menu often. They never buy the same amounts. They know they're small restaurants cause we're in the Catskills mom things. So if I had to Trek all the way to New York city, I wanted to have something solid and not deal with some chefs that would just use a little bits of microgreens as a garnish.
so the first thing I did is that. I wanted to pick between farmer's markets or grocery stores and, the farmer's market crowd, the microgreens producer is actually a fairly thick in New York city. It's been around for a while. There are people growing in shipping containers in Brooklyn, so they're on location, which makes it a lot easier for them.
And so I gave a bunch of clamshells of microgreens to some grocery stores around the city to see if they would sell them and if it would work and that's where the niches piece was, because I hope I'm in it now, because there's a variety of factors, but there was not a lot of producers offering to those stores. In New York city, there are a lot of historic, independent stores that are, not part of chains that are just, how do you call them in American, moment box? Is that what you say?
Diego: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Vincent Cuneo: Some of these have been around since the seventies selling organic local produce because, it's a part of the country that has always been, very interested in this type of, products. And, and these are the ones that large distributors, don't, don't get too.
So they want to work with small local farmers and they don't have microgreens. So that's and it works right from the get-go and that's really what was very encouraging because from the very beginning, we had sales in major independent stores, throughout the city. and I thought that, that was a real market to books, unity.
And so as far as restaurants and farmer's markets, we still have very little experience. We have never done a farmer's markets. we only sell to a handful of restaurants in the city and maybe 10 restaurants in our area. And we supply a few CSA aggregators that I think is an amazing opportunity as well. But, it's not so many of them around. so yeah, of course grocery stores have been, are as a strong point from the get-go.
Diego: Hearing that, it sounds like it was pretty smooth sailing from the beginning. Did you face any sort of issue with catching production up to meet that demand? If you get at some of those bigger, independent grocery stores saying yes, and a few of them do it at once, did you have to scale up pretty quickly? And was that any sort of issue?
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah, we have to scale up quickly and there was not an issue was just a lot of work. yeah. And May of 2017, we were producing 40 trays a week, 30, 40, and now we're at 200. And that's like in less than a year. This is not a lot, really large amounts. I just, I showed this video that Curtis Stone posted on the large microgreens operation in Canada. They do 2000 trays a week. But for us, it is actually quite a lot.
It's already to do two hundreds because, my business partner, Luke, and I, it's just the two of us. And you have to understand that for grocery stores, the thing that matters the most is presentation, which means that we need to harvest by hand very carefully. There's no automation whatsoever and every clamshell needs to be packed pretty and without debris and without, so that makes the whole harvesting process quite, quite a job.
So 200 tray is, actually close to, like we were starting to feel the pressure a little bit, especially in the winter, it was dealing with the snow and frozen soil and everything like that. Apart from that, it's just starting from scratch. I feel like this year is going to be easier than last year.
Diego: What was your biggest challenge? Would you say last year as just starting a new business?
Vincent Cuneo: Getting organic certified? Yeah. The USDA organic certification is a central piece of accessing to the best stores. Because those stores on the carry product that is certified organic. So we went from starting your from scratch to really quickly working on the organic certification and obtaining it. And that was, that was hard because first of all, we just became farmers a year and a half ago.
So we have to learn everything, and. it's good. It's good. Doing the organic certification was a great thing because it forced us to have our stuff in order and our paperwork in order and everything like that. But yeah, that was the biggest challenge.
Without the organic certification, I would say that, getting into relying on the grocery stores is a long shot. Are for instance, I know that right after we obtained it, I just went on sales and within a month and a half, we had doubled it's just, then the market opens really. I really felt like before getting certified, I was not in business. I was just, tinkering around.
Diego: What was your sales process like when you went into these stores? I think this is a bit of a black box that people talk about go approach chefs, go approach stores, but you don't hear a lot about what happens on the other side. When you were doing this before you had an account, what was your process? You walk through the door, what happens?
Vincent Cuneo: I tried a bunch of different things. so maybe I don't need to. Elaborate on the ones that don't work because there's, there are several methods. that's interesting.
Diego: What didn't work?
Vincent Cuneo: I'm trying to sell them this stuff right away that doesn't work produce managers are used to dealing with, all types of producers, small or big or large distributors, but they're used to get samples and they're used to getting, products to try. so they're not just going to put money on the table right away.
So the first thing is that you have to be generous. You have to be generous because it shows also that you believe in your products. if you're willing to give it to them, for them to witness that, their customers will buy it and love it. It shows, I think some confidence. So that was the, really, the first thing I learned, like I had to be generous.
And that means sometimes being generous repeatedly and trying to tweak things around, by maybe for instance, giving them different products, like a narrower or wider range of microgreens or different sizes. And that's pretty much how I did my market research. I was just giving them the stuff and I, so what sold, what didn't.
Diego: So you brought in like a saleable quantity, not just one clam shell for them to try personally, like, a bunch?
Vincent Cuneo: [00:12:56] They're not even going to try it. They're just going to put it on the shelf and it gives them no information because they just put one on the shelf. So if it sells itself, it doesn't, they don't learn anything, but if you bring them three clamshells of four different microgreens, then they take a little space on their shelf and they make a little presentation and it's something and they see, they observe their customers.
So they see if people look at them, they see if itself, of course, but they also see if there's any interest from their customers. So I think that it's important to when you approach stores to give them something that is an actual product that they can sell. And that means that every time I bring a box of samples for the first time to a store and cost me, I don't know, 50, 60, whatever dollars, but it doesn't matter, that's part of the marketing.
Diego: You're very methodical about this. Were you strategic about what microgreens you brought initially to the store to try and get some success? There's a lot of crops you can grow. You'd only bring in four how'd you go about picking which ones you're going to bring in.
Vincent Cuneo: First, there are the two most popular microgreens, that are the sunflower shoots and the features. and these are the ones that, they actually are in the stores. There are producers around, most of the times, those are farms that are diversified. They grow a variety of crops, but they also have a microgreen section let's say, and they will grow maybe only pea shoots. So only sunflowers. It makes it easy for those farmss.
So that's a product that they can distribute. and they're also obviously large, specialized farms of microgreens that only do pea shoots and sunflowers, but these are the two most popular crops. So from the get-go, it was pretty obvious that, we had to go as these, and then, for everything else, it was just trial and error.
I, and I gave him some kind of, weird, not the best selection at the beginning because I just wanted to see how it would go, I remember I was making a box that was a one-ounce box, which was a little bit of a tiny little bit of a four crops, where was it? Who was shiso, amaranth and a couple of different types of bailss.
So various Alteryx, very pretty, but that be work at all. that's not the type of stuff that works in a grocery store. and also those where crops was a short shelf life. So that was a disaster. so Sunflower shoots and pea shoots. I picked up right away that was going to work consistently.
It took time. It took time trying things. now one of the crops that is one of our best sellers is the broccoli. Broccoli is famous for its health benefits. And, it looks like people know about that. So it's selling very well.
Diego: How does it work with the grocery store in terms of bringing product in? You bring 20 clamshells of a particular product in, and it doesn't sell, let's say 10 of the 20 sell the product goes off. Have you already sold them all 20? And they're just eating it. Do you work on some sort of credit back?
Vincent Cuneo: It depends on the store. Some stores are easier, a little more lenient than others, but I would say the general rule of thumb is I'm going to credit them for every single unspoken venturing.
unless the relationship has evolved into, something that makes them want to help me more and we would split it 50 50, but for the majority of the stores I work with, I buy back every time shell that doesn't sell. It means that pretty much I have to run my shelf in their store. I have to understand when in the year, sales are strong and when New York city is empty and no one's buying microgreen. And therefore I have to adapt the amounts and I am on the phone every single Monday morning with all of my produce managers. And we have a casual conversation about how busy the story is and what do they have left?
And if they sold out, when did they sell out during the week? And, it's a partnership with these produce managers and they're happy to do it. They're actually happy to have an interaction with someone who cares and who's going to try to minimize waste and maximize the sales.
so it's not that hard. I think it is just a matter of being, somewhat, I don't know. I have to be a little conservative. For instance, I picked up a new store in Brooklyn and this guy was very excited and he wanted so many clamshells and I made a mistake. I give him everything you ordered for like his third order. It was a huge order. And of course I came back the following week and there was, I bought back almost a hundred dollars back of product, which is huge for me. I'm learning also that I have to temper maybe enthusiasm of some produce managers that, see this new product where they can make a good margin.
They want a lot of it. but overall is good, to do that because I find that it's a lot easier to under supplies I'm slightly and therefore not have anything to buy back. Rather than really give them what they want and have to give them 20 bucks every week.
Diego: Yeah, love the idea of it. And I think it makes it attractive to stores to enter into that partnership. Let's say on a longer standing account, a good account that you're on the ball on you're, controlling the shelf, as you say, on a weekly basis on average, how much of an order of percentage wise would you say you're buying back? Is it zero or is it less than 10%?
Vincent Cuneo: Zero, 5%. Yeah. I have a lot of accounts, especially the big ones, the solid ones, major stores, it's zero. Usually after months and a half, the things are worked out and I know if, the person is too conservative or too enthusiastic. And that's the personality traits that I observe. And then I, I push them into direction that I feel is going to make it with less waste and with less credits.
Diego: So when it comes to a store selling this stuff, there's a few things you have total control over when you try and get these stores to sell it. So you don't have to buy it back. And it's the quality of the product. So it does last on the shelf. It's the presentation of that product in the clamshell. It's the clam shell itself and the labeling on it because that's what the customer sees.
When you talk, think about the clam shell in the labeling. Have you played around with that to try and get it more visually appealing?
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah, absolutely, you're complete your rights. Selling something in the grocery store is, it's not like the farmer's markets. And even though some of the customers that shop at those stores overlap with customers that would shop at the farmer's markets during the season, it's also a different crowd than to have strong sales, it really has to look really good.
And to go back at the beginning of the conversation very shortly. It is actually something that I had noticed at the, in the first place is that the competition was not paying a lot of attention on presentation and quality and packaging. I was puzzled like how they could actually run businesses like that and have decent sales. so anyway, The labeling we have, decided to, pay for very, a very nice quality of paper.
The biz not get damaged by water or the harsh lights that are in the grocery stores. this means that our labels are shiny and beautiful and standouts. They're also well-designed, my wife is a professional artist and she helps us design our labels. And they look pretty nice. And in terms of the packaging, we went for clamshells that are wide and flats.
So you see the content very well. This is, there's a bunch of different ways to do it's. I think that the little plastic bags or sits up bags, or are they bad in terms of presentation and the clamshells that are more boxy? More like a cube have the disadvantage of not presenting product very well. You don't see through very well.
Diego: Are you limited at all by the store though. If they say you're only going to get 24 linear inches of shelf space, your clamshells are six inches long on the front. You can put four, but if you've got a narrower our clamshell unique, get more product out there. Did that play into it?
Vincent Cuneo: No, this has never happened.
Diego: What about in terms of the weight? So they're probably selling those clamshells for some price. They're going to say it's $8 for a clam shell and you could put an ounce in there, or you could put three ounces packed tighter into there. Have you played around, had to play around with the weight?
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah, it's the other way around though. It's more like I choose the weights and the prize that goes with it and then they put their markup on it. So the way I think about it is okay, how much. Would I pay if I was a regular customer of this store, how much would I pay for this?
Let's say two and a half ounces of sunflower shoes, which is our current format. It's a 24 fluid ounce box. and I know that I want to be under $5. If I was a customer there, I would not. I think it's a big, like psychological thing, under $5 over $5. So if you want to stay under $5, like at my price, and then I add that with the quantities. So we have different formats.
And I think this is quite interesting was microgreens because you can play around with the size of the boxes you're dealing with overall fairly small items, fairly small boxes. So we have a half pound spots for basil and cilantro, and we have the one on spots for watercress and broccoli.
And then the rest of her stuff is two and a half ounces. And so by making a smaller format, we keep it to a smaller price. That's really interesting. $8 we have one item that is next with, Five different microgreens and they sell it for seven to $8, but it's just a super specialty product.
I don't think like sunflower or pea shoots would work in this way. it's a salad mix in which we have let's call it mustard, broccoli, red chard. what else? red, Russian kale. And there's something else. Arugula.
so yeah, that's also something I figured out quite quickly. it was not working well to offer them a bunch of products that would be priced all the same, because a lot of people are making the decision in the store was the price points. And so they're not going to buy the $8 item no matter what, even if it looks awesome.
So if we have, if you sent and give them a selection where there's some stuff that they can press eight and some that they can plus four and some, they can price at three, makes it a lot easier to, to reach like a larger percentage of their customers.
Diego: Yeah, I really liked the idea and how you've thought about some of that stuff. Cause I'm with you, if it's all five bucks, one at eight value associated with the higher price.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah. Because people also see the difference. They see the, in one year just to have sunflower shoots or pea shoots and or radish and the other one, you have five different microgreens really well presented.
I think that's really chefs that are driving that item specifically. So I think a lot of chefs in New York city shopping those stores, they don't necessarily buy really, specialty microgreens on a regular basis, or maybe they order it online once in a while on their major distributors. But when they see it in the store and it's fresh, they just rush for it.
Diego: How have you had to deal with seasonality? And do you notice it where buyers want different stuff or is it like salad mix? They want to see the same salad mix on the shelf 365 days a year.
Vincent Cuneo: I don't really have, necessarily the distance to actually answer your question. But from this fast years of salvation, I would say that, I don't even know because we've come up, came up as our current menu on the like this summer. So this is all very fresh. The only actual thing that I noticed is that microgreens don't sell in grocery stores in the summer in New York city. People don't buy them because for different reasons, but mostly the city is empty from the regular residents. And the regular residents that want healthy food at that point of the year, they will go to the union square farmer's markets where they have amazing local farmers and also a microgreens if they wants, but they're not just not going to step within the stores. Those stores are empty and the summit. But in terms of variety, I don't really know. I don't really think so.
Diego: What about in terms of crops that you've had challenges with? Is there anything, you know could sell, but you just have trouble producing it either at all consistently or on scale?
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah. We have crops that are more difficult. Watercress and cilantro are two crops that are difficult. And we're insisting with them because they sell decently, especially the watercress. It sells pretty well. But, it's not easy. We put this constrain that we need a certain yield to make it work, to make the max work.
So therefore we have to have a certain, we're a little pushy on density and on sizes, and that makes it hard for the plants to actually develop healthily. When they have cramped and there's such a grow too big, it's hard. We have to tweak things around to make it work, but yeah.
Watercress and cilantro are always hard. I don't know, maybe in a few years I will finally stop sweating about some far shoots, but, I feel like there, it's just, you never know what you're going to get was the seeds. some seeds will yield two and a half pounds per tray. Some sealed seeds will not yield a pound. So that means that it's testing seed batches, and then calling the seed company to hear that the batch has gone and they don't have it anymore. These are hard.
Diego: Knowing that sunflower�s are one of the issues that you're struggling with, let's use this as the transition point to bring Chris on to the show and he can help work through some of these issues with you. But based on what you've heard so far, Chris, you've sold to grocery stores in Vancouver. Vincent selling in New York city, grocery stores. What are your thoughts on hearing it?
Chris Thoreau: [00:28:42] Here's my thoughts. I have nothing productive to add to this conversation. Vincent, you have so much stuff figured out. I'm just sitting here going, Oh my God, what am I here for? So I think you've really nailed a lot of things, in your approaches and refining your approaches. To be less obnoxious, there's one thing that stood out for me, and this is a thing I struggled with, and still struggled with is this idea of buying back unsold product. And, we've done similar things over the years, especially in the beginning.
If we want to get a new client on. Yeah. You can take them three or four. Clamshells a couple of times a week. You replaced them, you don't charge them. And over time they become a customer and you're right. It's a marketing cost. And I think it's a great way to get into a place and to demonstrate the faith you have in your product.
The idea of buying back unsold product on a continuing basis to me is based on a model of big business, right? So these are big businesses that can afford to buy back stuff they can afford to have somebody come in and you see this with potato chips all the time. Like you don't just drop off a couple of boxes of potato chips, get your slip signed and then leave.
They come in, they check the display, they make some numbers. So as you alluded to, they actually maintain their own display, their own product in the store. And that does take some time. So in your case, when there's two of you, if you're doing a lot of deliveries in a day and you're spending a lot of time in the store, that's a lot of stuff. That's a lot of time you're not spending elsewhere.
And so what I try to do is, the food paddler's model was doing two deliveries a week to grocers and between the grocer and ourselves, if we can't, manage that stock. So there's almost always the right amount on the shelf, then there's something wrong there either we don't know our process well enough, or you're dealing with a project manager who's not competent.
And there are periods when for whatever reason, you've got a drought of customers and things like that. And you definitely need to learn the seasons, but I'm not a big fan of buying stuff back. I think it's a process based on big companies. And you see it now, whether it's best buy or like any big, consumer company, you can take anything back these days, getting an exchange, getting a refund companies, just take stuff back that stuff ends up, maybe getting back into the system, but I don't know what the process is there, but for small producers, as you mentioned, if you've got to do a hundred dollars buyback, that's a big blow.
And, if we look at, say the CSA model, one of the strengths of the CSA model as the consumer is there to share in. The benefits and the potential downfalls of a good or a bad farming season. And that way it's shared risk. And then the other buyback model, the risk is all on the producer. And when you're a small-scale producer, you've already got enough risk just in the inherent nature of being a small producer.
So adding that risks, and that coming from a grocer who in many cases can absorb that loss, if it's relatively small, I don't think is a great model. So if I was to push anything, it would be like trying to get away from that buying back stuff, even though it sounds like you've got the numbers worked out really well, not to oversupply and that would be our approach as well. Number one is, if I go in every Tuesday and they're always sold out and they just sold out that last clamshell that morning. Great. If it happened to be a day or two earlier, not as great, but better than coming and seeing five, clamshells on the shelf that aren't sold.
And then another thing we would do, because we are coming in twice a week because we have our orders and we'll say, okay, We're coming in with our usual six clam shells. Oh, I see you've already got three on the shelf. So even though I was going to bring you six, I'm going to bring you three and I'm going to take these other three and try and move them to another market all along my way during the day, or those will go to the farmer's market or these be something we donate somewhere.
So having that flexibility, I imagine you've been in a situation where you've been able to do that as well. So that stood out to me a little bit with grocery store stuff, but everything else you've nailed that you've got it all figured out.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah. This buyback thing, I, the reason I like it is they know me. They know that I give them that and it's not, they it's like that person. And then suddenly it's there's a relationship and it doesn't have to be a lot. It's like a lot of stores. Like the other day I went and I credited this guy $1, because, there was a $2 bucks of basil left and we split it because that's our arrangement and it's $1 and it's not, it's more like the gesture than anything else.
And I think for most, for the huge majority of my accounts it's that it ends up costing me, I don't know. And maybe a couple dollars on average per delivery. I raised my prices beforehand because, from when we got the USDA certification, we raised our prices and decided to stick with the buyback for the relationship that had grants.
But I completely understand where you come from and yes, it would be advantageous to, be more conservative, give them less products and accept less buyback. And I feel like in very busy markets, such as New York city, we want to have your shelf full. You don't want to have your shelf empty for two days in a row.
Ae do only one delivery a week cause it's two hours away. I don't want them to be sold out for the last, 48 hours before I come back. So I know that there is a balance there to strike and the $100 buyback that, I mentioned earlier was a new account. And I got myself then diesel by the guy that was so enthusiastic and wanted to buy so much. And I think I put my foot down. so that was really on me. And I know how to avoid that in the future, but I see where you're coming from.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah, no, it's a good, because you're only doing a once a week. you're doing the model that works for you. And our policy, what, quote unquote policy would be different from store to store. So one of our grocery customers, for example, they're a chain, they've got 15 stores in British Columbia. we definitely do not do a buyback with a big store like that. they, this is all right offs. they've got that all built into their system. For those mom and pop places and we sell to them a lot in that case, we might say, I'm going to replace a couple for free.
we don't do credits. We basically just don't charge. so similar thing. But once again, the conversation they're like you have is, okay, so what we're going to do, if five is too much, we're going to bring three of each, we're going to try and keep those levels. And because we have flexibility, we might get a call a little earlier and someone saying, Hey, we're out.
Which can you bring something early? And sometimes we can, it's actually, we've got a bit of extra stock. You're close by, we'll hop on a bike and do that. So this comes to the issue, and this is something we've talked about, Diego is you need to do what's best for your system. And it sounds like you've done a really good job of that because you're only delivering once a week.
And so you have less opportunity to make sure the stock is adjusted because you only get one opportunity a week to do that, as opposed to two. and then I like the idea that, when you're putting your price up, you're building loss into the price. And so you can even do that on an accounting level and say, for every, $3 a clamshell, we sell actually 10 cents of that goes into this fund, which is basically our buyback fund. I that's, it's a good way to approach what's going to work for your system and your situation.
Diego: [00:36:32] Yeah. the thing that really resonates with me here in this is. It's working for you now you're paying attention to it. You're on it versus having some policy and letting the policy really control you are not paying attention to it. And I think you're on the ball enough paying attention to this stuff, like if it was going to become a problem, you to adjust. So you're knowing it.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah, and I think there's always multiple things to consider. There's your business. There's your time, there's your ethic. And the idea in the beginning of me, like supplying a grocer with, 10 clamshells a week, twice a week for free for a month to try it out in the beginning, I wouldn't have even considered that.
But then as my understanding of the business evolved and my understanding of, that's not a lost product costs, that's a marketing cost that became a strategy because then I would look at okay, I have one month of, it's going to cost me in my cost on that is maybe 70 bucks. Maybe they're getting, $300 in sales out of that. That doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is for the two years after that of sales, I'm going to get, because of that one month I sacrificed.
What I think a lot of people experiences as their perspective and their approach evolves over time. And Vincent, you've just evolved very fast or you've started off at a very good point, Because you understand a lot of that. So that's probably one of the factors that's really allowed you to move from 40 trays a week to 200 trays a week so quickly because you're just, you're ahead of the game. You've got that happening.
Diego: [00:38:04] So let's transition back now to the sunflower. With that crop, that's one. I think we've touched on a little bit here and there in the podcast with Chris. What's your biggest issues right now with sunflower?
Vincent Cuneo: There are a couple of issues. One is mold, there is this white fuzzy mold that grows on the surface of the soil when the sunflowers are large already, when they've already shot up, over an inch and a half. And this mold, you don't see this mold when you uncover the trays when they're all yellow, but then it develops and then it's hidden in the forest of sunflowers. And you don't notice it until you have a chunk of the tray that collapses. so I think that a lot of that is seed sterilization and mold remediation, and selection, but I wish Chris you'd give me a magic formula here and tell me exactly how to get rid of this mold forever.
Chris Thoreau: That's not going to happen, but I'm going to give you some thoughts here. So the one thing that you talked about, and I'm glad we got under this is your seed. And sunflower. So what you've probably noticed you, it sounds like it's about, 10 or so different crops you work with. Sometimes for some of those crops, you can order seed without even thinking about it. And the seed is basically the same all the time, So we find that with arugala with peas, buckwheat, I don't even think about the seed I ordered. The seed comes, I grow, it's fine. 99% of the time sunflower is a different beast and every lot of seed, it's going to come from a different region. It's going to come from a different country.
It's going to be a different size. And my impression is that, if we look at so sometimes in terms of global crops, it's a big commodity crop and a sunflower, the seed we're using for, microgreens production is an oil seed. And so the primary use for that seed is for the oil industry. And so that's where the best seed is going to go. That's where their contracts are going to be. Snd even though I'm sure there are some specific sprouting and microgreens contracts, often every year, brokers are going to the market trying to find like, what seed is available. What's the price. Can I get it in? How much is there?
And so yeah, sunflower seeds shifts all the time. It's very frustrating because it affects your yield, your growth rates and your germination rate, your susceptibility to disease. The length of time, it takes to form a true leaves, the color, the texture, everything can change with a batch of seeds.
So this is important and I would almost take the same approach with seed. Especially sunflower, but any other seed where you're finding, there's like variation in, that you take with your produce managers at the grocery stores, your produce manager, you talk to every week and you do that because you have to, now you're not going to talk to your seed supplier every week. But you may talk to your seed supplier every month.
So what we have a couple of things we do, which is part of our process of working with sunflower seed. So one is always knowing what kind of batches are in at the, at the broker. we buy seed a pallet at a time, so that seed will last us a year or two.
And. We will watch the volume of that seed. And when it gets to a point it's we're going to have to start thinking about seed soon. I'm checking in with the broker to say, what do you have? How much of it you have? What do you have coming in? So over the next couple of months, what am my prospects look like?
and because I've been dealing with the same seed company for so long, we've got a relationship or they can tell me about the seed and right away, they tell me the seeds from Italy. I know I'm not interested, but I'm going to try it because if it's the only seed there is, I need to know how it performs.
So I'm always looking at that. And when I find a batch of seed that I like, I buy as much of it that we can a afford and B store, because sunflower is a seed that stores, without losing its vigor, I will store two to two and a half years� worth of seed, which we've done numerous times because I know if I don't have that.
Seed. And I get a crappy batch of seed from Italy, which is a different seed sizes and different growth rates, that has poor germination that is more susceptible to disease, that's going to affect my yield. It's going to affect my harvest time. It's going to affect of the ability of the crop to store well, And that's just, it's just not a risk.
It's like having a couple of months where you have to put a, crappy fuel into your car, or instead of eating, good, fresh vegetables, you're eating baked beans all the time. It just shifts everything. And you've gotta be on top of seed all the time. And especially with sunflower and, I do put a lot of thought into that.
I�m always, Hey, what kind of batches have you got in? where's this from? do you know the seed company. yeah, and we're looking for generally, seed grown in Canada or the US. and we're looking for the biggest seed they've got. I generally find that those two things are the key factors. Interestingly, when we get seed from Canada, one of the down points of it is there's more debris in there. There's more broken seeds. There's more pieces of stem and things like that, which you don't want because that's the sort of stuff which on the soil surface is more susceptible to mold. But what we found is. We don't get that mold.
And so even though that's a risk, we mitigate that risk through our general management practices. And we're not seeing that problem. And because it's Canadian seed and we're in Canada, we like that from an economic and sovereignty point of view. Generally we find it's bigger seed and it performs very well. So we like that. And we take the chance with the surface mold.
In terms of that mold. So I've seen that a little bit and we'll get a little bit of that white mold, which often turn into a bit of a, a gunky mess and you'll get these sort of dead spots on the, On the, on the soil within the trays, we get very little of that and we've had it over the years.
We get very little of that and it's hard to know why, what we've done. Cause we're always shifting things a little bit to account for all the crops needs, but there's a few things. So one of them is. the seed itself. So I see to may come in with, just natural microbes are or fungi on it, which are just when they're in a certain environment, they do very well.
You can control a bit of that by sanitizing the seed. And we sanitize all our batches. But what I've found is actually sanitizing the seed doesn't tend to make too much of a difference with that. If we have a seed lot that just tends to get little splotches. We accept that's that large and there's little splotches.
Two other factors though, that we always consider when we're seeing that disease are three, So one is just airflow. I talk about this in one of the videos, we have so much air flow in our system, like more than you would typically need, because it is a very enclosed system. And therefore everything's very contained.
You've got a very tight ecosystem and you're your natural risk of disease is very high. So having an excessive amount of air flow helps compensate for that. The second thing is being really on top of watering. when you're putting them into the germination stage, you want enough water for them to germinate, but not so much that it's going to oversaturate the trays and then same thing, when you uncover them, you're giving them enough water to grow well, but trying to keep it as minimal as possible, if you're finding that the mold coming in.
And then the third thing you can actually do is potentially reduce your seeding rate. And what that's going to do is it's gonna further increase the air flow because you're going to have more space between each of the stems and the leaves for air to get through.
So I would take a multi-pronged approach there. And what you'll find is potentially you're using less seed and getting the same yield, because you're not getting the dead spots. And so bringing down your sowing rate actually brings down your seed costs and you're getting the yield that you would expect.
So those are the general approaches I would look at there. Another potential thing to do is during the germination stage, maybe just before the trays get covered or even half way through the germination period is lifting up the trays and giving them a spray with a sanitizer.
So we've done that in the past with a, like acetic acid spray. Because those are actually very high risk situations. It's very enclosed, there's very little air flow. Cause he's got all the tray stack together. You've got all this pressure, pushing them down that we've only had to do that a few times.
And one of the times was when we had a real bad disease outbreak, which was, something that came in with the seed and over about six weeks at disappeared. And that's probably because the other sorta microbial flora within the system adapted and everything became balanced again. So often when you bring in something new, it brings in all sorts of new microbes with it, and then your ecosystem needs to adapt.
So it's a theory I have and it holds pretty true, but there might be a period of transition where you have to do extra, being more on top of your sanitation and you're watering and you're sewing rates until that period is over.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah, that's great. There's a couple of those, parameters that I actually, I'm way behind on. I don't have a very strong relationship with our seed suppliers. I don't have one person who I talked to, but it's not even for the sunflowers it's for seeds that don't matter because they're always the same, like you said. So I know that for seeds that have, especially sunflowers, but also seeds that can have poor germination rates, like cilantro or red chart.
I need to start developing those relationships and learning the countries of origins and the characteristics. And this is very helpful. What you say about the size of the seed and the countries where they come from. And I actually have noticed, the debris and the broken seeds you mentioned. So maybe, some batches from Canada.
Chris Thoreau: Sorry about that.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah. So I will work on that but the rest of the sink. Oh yeah. The airflow. So the airflow is all tricky because, okay. So we're on the, in a 1000 square foot, building, which is a cold day Quonset huts. It's a, a semi-circular building and have a decent airflow, but.
We have two main fans that are attached. There are ceiling fans. And recently, we're starting to get really pissed at those fans because this is not the, really the proper type of purple we need. We don't need the air to blow onto the greens and dry them out. So we need like a horizontal airflow, I believe. Is that correct?
Chris Thoreau: Yes. So you can have a, you can have fans above, but what you're trying to do is mix the air as much as possible. And that actually does two things. It keeps the air moving. and I do have the pictures of your setup here, and it's a great setup by the way. but yeah, actually now that I look at it, I don't see fans and we have. I'm trying to think. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine fans, I think within 320 square feet just to move. And some of those fans are directly over the crop. So they're hanging on the shelf, blowing to the shelf below. And we do that for the radish to keep them dry because once they're wet, they stay wet.
and other ones are just generally moving the air around the space. And in your space, you might want to have a couple on stands, like an oscillating fan, like two or three of those. so they're out of your way, but you're getting good vertical flow. there's another thing as I'm looking at your photos here, that I actually, am going to point out how deep are the trays that you're using?
Vincent Cuneo: Very shallow, like an inch and a quarter, inch and a half ones.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah. So I can see that you leave a little bit, you, the soil is not all the way to the top of the tray. There's a little bit of a lift there, and I imagine you do that. So when you put your seeds on, they don't fall off the tray.
Vincent Cuneo: it depends on crops, but, we also do it to save the soil, but, yeah, that's partially the reason is that yeah.
Chris Thoreau: So this is something that, so I see it, like I see behind in the one picture, you use a similar stacking method that we use. So when you stack, when you don't fill your soil all the way to the top, and then you put another tray on top of it.
There is an overlap between that bottom tray and that top tray. And that really restricts the air flow. So if the soil is right to the surface and it's flat, it has to be flat, it can't be mounted. And then the seed sits on top and then you put a tray on top. The seed is still above the soil and you can see it there.
And so when you have multiple trays stuff like that, I think my experience is that little bit of airflow of having the seed above that lip, really reduces molds. And that might be something years ago. We figured out what sunflower and that's why we don't see that much, very much anymore. And it does pop up like one and 200 trays might have it, so that might be something.
If this method is working, continue to do it. But maybe for the sunflower one or two of your stacks, you'll fill it all the way up to the top. And you can, you've got a little bit of a control group and a test group. So you can see if you change the soil, method that helps.
Vincent Cuneo: I will definitely do that. this sounds like a good idea. We do have four crops that are slow growing and that we keep in the greenhouse for three weeks or a month, just because they need more nutrients in most soil. Basil for instance, but I had never considered that airflow during germination, but that makes a lot of sense.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah. So another thing to consider here, if you've got a tray that's an inch and a quarter thick. And you're only filling it up, say 80%. That's like yours. That's 20% less soil. So that's 20% less rooting space and that's 20% less water-holding capacity. And because it's already a very stressful environment, because an inch and a quarter, tray is not very much soil and I'm sure you've seen it when you pull out, especially with a pea like when you pull a crop, a PE out of that tray after you've harvested, there's no soil left, it's all root mass.
And so it fills it up really well. So if I having just a little bit less soil, you actually have a little bit less water-holding capacity and a little less nutrient depending on your mix. So I've always been a B, even though it's a small tray put as much soil in it as possible because you're already stressing the plants out with that little amount of soil.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah, I think I have to start thinking about that.
Chris Thoreau: It's tricky because it's, it does it technically it saves you a bit of money, but you're saving on soil, but paying for it elsewhere potentially. And so that's the trick is to know where that balance is.
Vincent Cuneo: And I do the, the little fans that are overhead over the validation or the kale, because they're always wet. Yeah, that will really well. but yeah, maybe we need those like more and more permanent basis on our sunflowers.
Chris Thoreau: And like the way we do. So we've got basically like an alley and there's, it's one long alley and a shipping container. And, sorry, I'm moving around and gesturing with my hands for some reason, but there's a long alley, basically with a shelf on the left and a shelf on the right. And the way we set up airflow in the greenhouse. So up above there's fans going one way. And then down below there's fans going the other way. And so basically the idea is that the air is going in a circular motion all the time. And it's always moving that way on top of the trays that are just on the shelves.
And so that's that in greenhouse design, your general model is you've got fans along the outside walls and it's circling things in a sort of a circle around the greenhouse. So we're doing the same thing, just the circle instead of being horizontal, it was vertical. And the reason I like that is because it also reduces the temperature gradient.
And so you don't get it very cold at the bottom and quite warm at the top. It's a pretty consistent temperature throughout the greenhouse. And in the beginning, the idea was, if we've got warm at the top and cool at the bottom, then we'd grow our cool crops down here and our warm crops up top.
But in theory it makes sense. But in practice we found having a consistent temperature through the whole greenhouse, allowed everything to grow better. And I don't know why that is generally. but yeah, I think that consistent temperature has made a big difference.
Vincent Cuneo: That's helpful. Our main problem was temperature is keeping its cool enough. And even on the middle of February, when we have two feet of snow up there and it's 13 degrees Fahrenheit, we're not heating and it's 75 degrees in here right now. I'm going to have to open the windows before I leave. It's just an in the summer it's a disaster and the quality gets really, lowered when we get days at 80 degrees.
So we're going to pull that out for the summer. I think we might have to just get some large powerful vents to just exhaust the hair outs. And what do you think about an AC unit? Is that even, is that doable?
Chris Thoreau: I assume I expect, and talking to other people, the amount of air conditioners aren't particularly efficient and you would use a lot of energy to try and cool down a space like that. And it would be very difficult to cool. So a couple of questions here though. At this time of year, when it's cold outside, why is it so warm inside? what's the heat source?
Vincent Cuneo: the only heat source are the lamps that we use. Those led grow lights that don't keep that much. It's just. That's the only thing, but the building is very well insulated. It was a residential building. There is an actual, proper home installation throughout the entire building. And this shows, this just came out. It's very well insulated. So it's three degrees in the morning when I walk in and if I don't open the windows and the doors during the day, it's going to be some over 70 degrees, regardless of the temperature outside.
Chris Thoreau: So if you were to look at the sort of standard for greenhouse design and we'll just, we'll act like this is a greenhouse, you want to have, or actually any building, you want to have a certain number of air exchanges per hour or per day. So the way it works in the food Pedalers greenhouse is in the winter every hour, there's a vent, an exhaust fan that comes on for five minutes.
It pushes air out and draws fresh air in. So that happens every hour in the winter. And that allows fresh air to come in without reducing the temperature too much. In the summer, the way it works. As soon as the temperature hits a certain point, it's just on all day. Always bringing in fresh air. So looking at your front view there, I don't know if you've got windows in the back of this as well, but if you had an attic fan, basically in one of those windows up top, and then a vent on the other side of the building, so you can draw air through it, that's going to allow you to keep fresh air in there, and hopefully bring down the temperature.
In terms of, bringing the temperature down further in the summer, what might actually work? what color is your roof on that building?
Vincent Cuneo: It's a metal roof.
Chris Thoreau: But it is a gray and the siding looks like there as well. Yeah, I would think that would reflect a bit of the light and heat away. But if that was white, probably what's going to happen. That's going to reflect back and absorb more and that might help bring the temperature down as well.
Vincent Cuneo: I like the partial fans on thermostats idea. Four starts a lot better. I don't know about thanking the whole thing.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah. so another option for the summer might be to put in, put up Reemay or put up just a giant white tarp and you bungee it down really good. And they're just going to be a certain time of the year where that's there and then after a while, you'll take it off. So that's one way. Yeah. The painting at white is. Maybe a bit excessive.
Another thing to think about is if you don't have air exchange happening in there, what's going to happen is you're going to get a shift in the balance between your oxygen and your CO2. So plants need CO2 and they produce oxygen. And what can happen is your oxygen contents go up and your CO2 contents can go down. So bringing in the fresh air, and it's going to give you a better balance. You might see better growth because of that.
Vincent Cuneo: I am getting a system on Terma step tomorrow.
Chris Thoreau: Nice. And so this is, so I'm all about, figure stuff out with what's available. we went to home hardware, home Depot, we just got a regular attic fan that has a built in thermostat. And so it just, comes on and off whenever it's needed and yeah, just, you can buy a vent that.
Basically automatically pulls itself open when air is drawn in and it's closed. Otherwise, that way you don't have pests and stuff that are able to get in. And then for the winter, what we do is the thermostat on the greenhouse is set to, on the fantasy to really low. So it comes on right away, but there's a, it's plugged into a timer, so it's technically on, but the timer is off.
And so the timer just puts it on, once an hour for five minutes. So that's using a dual system to make that happen. There's more advanced stuff from the greenhouse industry, but she'll pay 10 times as much. And it's probably too big a scale for the size you're at here.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah, that sounds very good. I think it's a great, starting points because, I know that's airflow is really a weakness and now that we've cranked up production and we need to maintain the quality we received, that we have more difficult to as our poor set up. So yeah, that's definitely something we're going to work on. Hunger snaps coming to your greenhouse?
Chris Thoreau: We have never had a pest problem ever. I don't know why. So the question is where are they coming from? And there's three basic sources they're coming from your seed and you can bring in pests in your seed. they're coming from the soil. or they're just coming from the outside.
So I see in the one picture, the door is open. You're hanging out outside right now. Like with the door open, like that, not only can flies and bugs get in, but rodents can get in like the most likely place for a road in to get into a building is actually right through a door or a window.
And ways to reduce that or having a, having a screen door on there. if you put invents their screens on them as well. And then if it is a seed or soil source probably are going to get rid of things through the sanitation process, with the seed, with the soil, if it turns out to be the soil.
It'd be a question is it, are they getting into the soil when they're on your site or are they coming in with the soil? From your supplier? So if it turns out it's with the supplier, it's a conversation to have there. If it turns out it's on site, then it's just, how do you manage your soil on site to avoid anything getting into it?
And we used to have this problem. We used to get big 25 yard, load of soil, dropped off, and we just had it in a big pile, which we covered up, but rodents, good to get into there and they could nest into there. And so you'd be digging soil to fill trays and you're coming across the rodent nest. So there's some clear sanitation issues there. and so what we started doing is bringing in soil and big totes that we could cover and were really hard to get into. There was an additional cost there, but it just eliminated that whole, like road intrusion issue. So in terms of those might be a few things to look at to try and reduce that.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah. I barely have a them around now, but there's still a little bit, I use the sticky traps to control the quantity that's going on. And it's barely anything when we harvest, it's rare that we come across a fungus nets fly, but we see them on the sticky traps. So that means that they're around somewhere. And I also feel that, is there in the system? It's hard to get rid of them without purging the entire system. I don't know.
Chris Thoreau: Big purging fan, but probably once a year. so the food paddlers take a couple of weeks off over the Christmas and new year's holiday, it's just, you need downtime, coming into that period after Christmas sales just drop everywhere. And so it's a good time to shut down and take a break plan for the following season.
And basically like the whole greenhouse gets emptied, Washington sanitized, and then everything goes back in there. Same thing with the harvest area. So I'm doing that. And then from the looks of things, it looks like you guys have a really good, regular cleaning and sanitation routine. there may be something you can do within that just tweaks it a bit that maybe helps control the fungus gnats a little better. that is a one I haven't had a lot of experience with. I do wonder when you, work on the airflow of that might help as well. So that's, it's worse.
Vincent Cuneo: I think the air flow will be key because, I've done a bunch of different seems to control them and I've had some success with airflow is one of them.
but yeah, I think that makes sense. The parameters you laid out are the ones that are likely, and I think I can right away. I know that it's not the sole cause we get them in two yard, sling bags. And it's it. I think that at this point we not bringing them in. We don't bring them in, especially in the winter, they're not out there.
So they're just live in the greenhouse, in the cracks of some slow growing trays like Bazell that, that trays in here for three weeks or something, they have had time and then they go develop into, then the next few tray of basil that's more like it, but for a very small problem and.I have to figure this one out.
Diego: One thing I'm curious about Vincent here in your system is you're going on a lot of different crops. Cilantro is one of the crops you're growing, and then you're growing things like pea shoots that are on shorter cycles. Given the fact that you're selling to grocers, how are you managing the different cycle lengths for the crops that take longer times to harvest and then the shorter ones.
I sell a lot less of the slow growers than, pea shoots or sunflowers. so we basically have only three crops that, growing in more than two weeks basil cilantro and, watercress. the watercress is pretty much exactly a twos. And everything else is about a week or 10 days. it's just the planting cycle and the harvest and cycle.
Yeah. We try not to sell a lot of it. We've actually designed our boxes, make them small packages and they're not the best sellers. They're more like a little side products, but it's important for us to have some sort of diverse offering, otherwise I don't know if we would be able to make it, is just a narrower selection of fast-growing microgreens.
Maybe it's possible. I'm actually thinking of cutting something because, we have a hard time just to supply the demand. And, we have some problem crops like cilantro. So right now I'm Oh, maybe I should just get rid of cilantro.
Diego: In terms of the harvesting. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because one thing you talked about was it's you and your business partner, you guys are doing the harvesting. It's pretty meticulous. You got a gun to go slow because you're really trying to pack things nice for display. What have you arrived at in terms of giving you the best look while maintaining some speed to go through that many trays a week?
Vincent Cuneo: It has to be dry. And Chris mentioned that the radishes they're wet, they stay wet. it's true. you can't really dry them out properly, but, yeah, if we pack greens that are wet, we'll have poor shelf fly and we'll have no problems while harvesting and that's not good.
So that's the really kind of key to our harvests set up is, we dry the trays ahead of time. So that the two days before we harvest the trays, we start amping up the airflow on top of the tray significantly, and spreading them apart, especially the radish daikon, radish grows quite big.
And when we put four trays on a shelf, they're really tight together, but if we put only three trays, they will just, take more space, but then there will be air flow between each plants. and on top of that, we had some fun air flow, flowing over the trays.
and then as long as we have, dry greens to harvest, it's going to be easy RMS. and as far as harvesting goes, we've just used a knife and do it by hand. We make sure the knife is really clean and sharp, and it goes from our hand into the each clamshell. And it's a two person job. One person cuts and put us in the clamshells the next person, arranges the clamshells, closes them labels and goes in the cooler. That's how we do it.
Diego: One other thing I'm thinking of is you got a lot of different crops here. Up to 10 varieties and you're talking about maybe possibly cutting out some of those. How have you found growing all those crops within a single space? One thing Chris has talked about in some of the shows we've done is his setup's really geared at growing a few crops really well.
The more crops you grow in a given environment, the more generic the environment has to be. Now there's obviously zones within that environment that might be different and more suited to certain crops. Given that you have this one space that's not divided up, have you found any issues where some crops just don't grow as well? Or you've had good luck growing everything in the space you have?
Vincent Cuneo: Say the answer is yes and no. cilantro is, does not like the heat in our building. Cilantro does not like to temperature over 70 degrees Fahrenheit that's for sure. And, and so I think that's the roots of our program was that crop.
And on the other hand, we have a lot of flippers Faisal for the same reason. And yeah, there are clubs that are more difficult, because of the temperature. That's the first to me, like that's the major parameter I think I can pinpoint, for now. And if I considered cutting some crops, it would be the ones that cannot tolerate sessions.
And there's a handful of things that are difficult to grow just overall as microgreens I think, because maybe you need to find a really good quality seeds, but those are more like specialty crops for chefs and we grow 30 varieties about 30 varieties, 30, 35. But 2/3 is just occasional and it shows, The restaurant buys like a tray a week of some sweet type basil, some stuff like that, but that doesn't go to our stores.
And these are always a little challenging because, we are not very used to growing those crops, but I think that would be the way to go about it. If we wanted to narrow it down, we would just cut the crops that don't do well in our specific environments. And cool loving crops for sure, too bad for cilantro.
Diego: And that's when Chris you've struggled with, Like cilantro, I never had great luck with it?
Chris Thoreau: Never had good luck with it, same thing. That the system is just a little too warm for it. Actually, you really do need to have cooler temperatures and yeah, following up on that, like one of the tricks is as with any crop, whether it's a micro green or a ground crop is what are the conditions you're growing in? How do they relate to the ideal conditions for that crop? And if they're not ideal, how do you adapt? And, cilantro is a good example where, you know, he just, he done that just does that.
There's really no way to make up for it. You can't water more, you do stuff like that. Cause that cause of other problems about some crops, you change how you grow them or something and you can, you can make it work. I think it's interesting to hear you talk to Vincent about, growing, so many different varieties and just a few trays of each.
That's an approach that I've really pushed to avoid. Cause I find there is such a learning curve with each new crop. there's a lot of time that goes into it. And then there's just, it's Maybe one or two clamshells for one or two weeks. And it's always just seemed like too much work.
but it seems like that's really worked well for you guys. And it's another just. when we do these podcasts, Diego, like sometimes I'm giving very specific advice and sometimes it's the principal and the principal I keep going back to is you need to find what works for you, even if it didn't work for this expert or that expert. So once again, you guys, you seem to have done a really good job of finding systems that work for you guys and that you're able to build on it.
Vincent Cuneo: Some things that I like, particularly the tray of something in two trays of that. But, but I also want to support the local, very small restaurants here and it say puristic region, Just seasonally, but no one else has made these growing microgreens around here and they're excited to have that available. So it's a small price to pay, but it's not good business for sure.
It's we're not making money on our restaurant sales, except when they buy some flourishes or t-shirts, because we don't charge a lot of money either. Are the competitors charge way more money than you do for those specialty crops? We haven't really put it on the table since we started doing it. And I started doing it's more like as a market research than anything else. I just stuck to it because those chefs started buying from me, and I don't want to, go to them and tell them, Nope, you can't have your plants anymore. I don't know. I don't think this is something we're going to expand. We're just going to keep it small and local and easy.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah. that you made a couple of good points there and one is, you want to accommodate your restaurants. You want to support them. And it's a good way to explore new crops. And there's a lot of chefs that like to experiment with things in the same way. I think there's a balance that the restaurant and the chef also want to support you as a grower. And so it's good to have that point of view. What can you do and what can't you do?
And we've had this, conversation with chefs over the years, because over time you're going to work with the same chefs for years in different restaurants. Cause they'll move around and take you with them essentially. We've done that where for a few weeks, we'll grill something specifically for a chef. And sometimes we'll just say to the chefs, no, we can't do that. It's just, it doesn't make any sense for us unless you want to pay this price because this is the cost of it.
And sometimes they'll go, Oh yeah, we'll do that. That's great. Or they'll say no. I get it. And so once again, I love the approach you're taking to support, the groceries and the restaurants. but make sure that there's a mechanism in there. So you're not overextending yourself.
burnout is another whole thing. And I think one of the last comments I made on our last podcast, Diego was like, How fresh to things need to be I call sus stuff, unreasonably fresh at times. and I think sometimes we offer an unreasonable amount of diversity or we go so far above and beyond what needs to happen when you're already putting chefs in a privileged position to give them something that they can't get anywhere else.
And so this just comes to the issue of not being curmudgeonly in any way, but. Remembering, there's a burnout factor. There's a balance, to you doing 200 trays a week doing the deliveries, the backend stuff. I know you're putting a lot of work into that and for a year or two, that's good. But if that becomes the model, what happens, it's like acid that eats away at the rest of your life.
And, that balance is really important to make sure you've got time for your friends and family and social life and travel and the odd football game. yeah, I always, I push a little bit, when, people are accommodating and I'm actually, I think it's great. I've been really impressed with the efforts you've gone to, which make a lot of sense in the early days. And over time you could probably be a bit more, strict with chefs and say, yeah, we've been working together for a long time and know you have that crop.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I see it as an, something that's going to evolve and hopefully I can grow out of it somewhat. I also think that in terms of business model, we've been pushing really hard to build this business so that we can build it big enough to hire some help. And that will make, everything else also lighter. And we'll be able to maybe customize the same way or in a fairly similar fashion, but when I'm not washing trays and scrubbing them in the. And the bleach for hours and hours, that will help a lot.
Chris Thoreau: One of the things, and I think it's a place you get to over time, And if you look at a three to five-year development process of your business, yeah. The first two to three years, you work long hours, you work long days, you get burns on your skin from the bleach. If you put up with that stuff, But if that's the model, then it doesn't work. And after a couple of years, okay, we can hire somebody to do this. We improve our safety, we improve our delivery, you build up, it's a very iterative process. And so it's good to hear. You've got that in mind.
I think a lot of people don't look that forward. and there's a lot of farmers that experience burnout, a lot of growers that have experienced burnout. And, you can't talk about ecological and economic sustainability on one hand, physically and mentally and emotionally, damage yourself on the other. It does those things don't work.
Vincent Cuneo: Amen. How about, pea shoots? So pea shoots are a very easy crop to grow, but they also have one issue and it is that they can dry out and become a little stringy and the leaves are not like plump and nice and round and soft. You know what I'm talking about?
Chris Thoreau: Yeah. So let's contrast pea shoots with sunflower shoots in terms of water, if it's really a warm and we anticipated it being cooler, which means maybe we sewed our sunflower a little early to make sure it matured on harvest day. Cause we always harvest on the same day.
if the sunflower crop is ahead, I can cut off water for a day or two. So sunflowers, completely wilts. I can water them. They'll come back. They'll be beautiful. There'll be fine. They'll be great. and they're just a little, they're set back a little bit. You can't do that with P GS a crop as if that it ever wilts.
It never fully comes back. It'll come back to life, but it never quite gets that. That plumpness that, I can't think of what the word is right now, but it's, it comes from the turgidity of the water. And so P is a crop that always needs to stay fairly well water without over-watering. so that's my experience with P as is if it gets underwater for a period, that, it doesn't really rebound back if it gets to a point almost a point of no return and in the beginning, probably for two or three years, I actually grew peas, in a different tray.
I grew peas in the deeper tray and that's what I felt I needed to do to get a good P and I don't know what happened. but when we made the shift of the smaller trays, we had a method so they could stay really well-watered. so that's my experience when I get that sort of lymph ness, or I don't even know what to call it with the peas. So is that what's causing yours or is there something else that's happening?
Vincent Cuneo: There's a good chance of that. It's very occasional, but we've had it more lately and I can't, I couldn't put my finger on what was going on. It's true that they don't come back from that stage.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah. When a sunflower does, like you can make sunflower look dead and there'll be back in five hours after you water them. Yeah. another thing you may have noticed is sunflower overall actually needs more water it transpires at a faster rate, even though within the same period, the pea will put on more biomass, they get to be huge. But they actually don't need as much water to do that.
And so it is a matter of making sure it's evenly watered all the time, but it actually doesn't need as much water as say sunflower does. So�how much water?
Vincent Cuneo: How often?
Chris Thoreau: So that depends on the time of year. Once a day, most of the time is going to be fine like this time of year, if you're cool and you're getting into say 70, 80 degrees, once a day is probably fine. In the summer you might need to do once a day or once every sort of three quarters of a day.
So you're doing like one evening the next morning and that evening, and then the next afternoon sort of thing, to be more steady. Another thing that is coming to mind. So what kind of P are you using? What's the variety?
Vincent Cuneo: The speckled peas. They're the same that mums offers. They call them speckled peas of mumm. We use High Mowing just because we have a nice, we're getting some price on her. but, it's the same. It's not the fuzzy one. It's the green one point and that's just a hair.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah. So yeah, the speckled is a nice pea and good to. I love Mumm�s. Mumm�s is our main supplier, but they're obviously in Canada. I actually talked with Tom Stearns last summer. Who's was the owner of high mowing seeds and they seem to be doing a really good job of becoming, more of a micro green seed supplier. Not only in carrying lots of good quality varieties, but in doing their pathogen testing as well. So in terms of going back to that conversation of creating the relationships with the seed companies, high mowing is a really great company to do that with.
And this actually goes back to a couple podcasts ago. Diego, when we focused on seed. high mowing is a great company because they've always been an organic seed company. And organic seed is still a very small niche in what's a growing industry, the organic industry, which is still very dependent to a degree on conventional seed.
And the high mowing is a company that actually works directly with seed growers in many cases, to produce their own seed instead of buying everything on the commodity market. they're a great relationship building company. There's a great opportunity there. So I'd really recommend, like trying to find a COO who is the microgreens person within the company to get in touch with, who's going to give you the best information.
And over time, what you're going to realize is your feedback to them is going to be just as valuable as the feedback they give to you. because they want to know growers experiences. They want to know that your system that's indoors with led lights allows the speckled fees before one way within a certain lot.
But this grower who's growing in a greenhouse, in Florida is having another issue. So it gives them a sense of how different seed performs in different systems and the way they do that is from feedback from growers.
Vincent Cuneo: Yeah. Who would be excited to start developing a real relationship with my seed suppliers. I think it's something that I've been, I it's just, I haven't had really the time or. Or put the effort to do it because we were swamped. It's just starting the business. But now it's time to be serious about that.
Diego: Vincent, for people that want to find out about all the great work that you're doing with microgreens and they want to see what your setup looks like. Where's the best place to go, where they can follow along?
Vincent Cuneo: To a fancy grocery store and Manhattan. If you want to see some pictures, you can look at our website. It's called agrarianfeast. com. I'm not going to spell it because I'm French and I can't spell English, but it's a gray and they can write it down in the comments.
Diego: Yeah, for sure. I'll link to it in the show description, but I want to thank you and Chris for coming on today to chat and share what you're doing and you're doing some great things in that part of the world. So thanks and keep it up.
Vincent Cuneo: Thank you, Diego, and thank you, Chris. It was a pleasure.
Chris Thoreau: Yeah. Thank you for sharing your experience and yeah, you guys are doing a great job and definitely keep in touch and keep us posted on how things progress.
Diego: [01:23:07] There you got it, Vincent Cunio on growing microgreens and selling them to grocery stores. One thing you said in there that I love is consistency in reliability. Something that he's looking for in a grocery store customer, if you want to follow along with everything that Vincent is doing, be sure to check out his web page, linked to that in the description for this episode.
I think Vincent's doing a lot of great things on his farm. And I really want to thank him for taking some time to come on the show today. If you're a microgreen grower out there and you have some troubles within your system, and you want to do an episode like this, where you talk about your story and get some of your questions answered by Chris, feel free to reach out because I'm always looking for new people to do episodes.
Just like this. Send me an email Diego at permaculture voices. Dot com. And if you want to learn more from Chris at home off the show, no interview required. Be sure to check out Chris's online course, growing your microgreens business. You can learn more about that firstname.lastname@example.org slash microgreens that's a six hour course work at your own pace and learn everything that goes into Chris's growing system.
From seed to soil mix to sterilization, to harvesting Chris covers it all. It's his 10 years of growing experience distilled down into that one day six hour online workshop, no travel required. So check it out. A permaculture voices.com/microgreens or in the link below. That's all for this one next week.
I'll be back with another small scale farmer making a go of it between now and then keep hustling and crushing it and stay tuned for another episode where it's all about farming. Small in farming. Smart. .
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