When it comes to microgreens, one of the most prevalent topics in that area is price per tray and its profitability. Today, we’ll be putting that on the backseat while we talk about a not so common topic with microgreens: food safety and sanitation.
And there’s no one else better qualified to talk about that than longtime microgreen grower Chris Thoreau.
Today’s Guest: Chris Thoreau
Apart from being a longtime microgreen grower, Chris Thoreau is also a consultant where he helps farmers and aspiring farmers with their microgreen operation. With all things microgreens, one thing he puts a lot of care into is food safety.
Chris Thoreau’s Microgreens Business Course – Website
In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart
- Introduction to today’s episode (00:47)
- Why microgreens are higher-risk products when it comes to human pathogen (01:40)
- Product integrity and liability (04:02)
- Different markets, different requirements (04:58)
- The protocols and guidelines at Chris’ microgreens operation (05:37)
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency guidelines
- HACCP-centered standard operation procedures
- The barest minimum you could get away with in terms of food safety (06:29)
- Canada’s food safety act (07:49)
- How important is it to record the sanitation procedures you’re doing? (09:52)
- Things that absolutely must be done regardless of the suggestions (12:02)
- The costs of sanitation in terms of labor and materials (15:46)
- How to approach liability insurance as a business owner (19:27)
- Relatively cheap annual premiums (23:02)
- How to approach drying microgreens (24:15)
- Reducing the temperature reduces chances for microbial growth (29:48)
- How to go about choosing soil from a pathogen standpoint (30:49)
- For starters, a pre-mix or a compost mix would be good, but experimenting would be worth it (34:40)
- Why would you top water and why would you bottom water? (36:54)
- Is there a distinct advantage to overhead watering? (41:14)
- Profit percentage: Seed cost vs. per tray selling price (43:48)
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Diego: [00:00:00] When it comes to growing microgreens, the focus is often on the price per tray. How much money you can make raising them in a small space. One area where there's usually not focused is around sanitation and food safety. That's the topic of today's episode with grower Chris Throeau coming up. Welcome to the world of the farming small and farming smart.
I'm your host Diego. Today's show is all about microgreens and it's all about really one specific topic, sanitation and food safety. That's the central theme that runs throughout this episode. For the topic I'm joined by microgreen grower, Chris thorough, somebody who grew microgreens commercially in Vancouver for over 10 years.
And one of the things that Chris put a lot of emphasis on when his business really started to grow was this subject: sanitation and food safety. So today we're going to get into the nitty gritty of what you should be thinking about when you're growing microgreens. Regardless of what your regulations really are.
You're growing a product that in the vege world is considered much higher risk than something like a lettuce. So these are things you need to pay attention to. So hopefully this episode will get you thinking about what you can do and what procedures you can put in place. So your farm can produce safe, sanitary and regulatory-compliant food.
Let's jump right into it. Food safety for microgreens with Chris Thoreau.
Recently got a question that somebody emailed then, and this is somebody at the beginning of their journey with microgreens and it was around the idea of microgreens being high-risk in respect to human pathogens.
Can you talk a little bit about your understanding of why they're treated that way and what it was like from your experience as a grower, dealing with selling to stores, dealing with the regulators. When it came to selling, microgreens not sprouts. We'll say we're from that. We'll just go with microgreens.
Chris Thoreau: [00:02:14] As you know, it's a topic that comes up a lot and I want to stay away from sprouts, but where it comes in with microgreens is some health bodies, including many Canadian ones. Canadian ones classify micro greens as a sprout.
And so from their perspective, the microgreens should be treated in the same way that a sprout is treated, which would include seed sanitation, a regular sanitation program for your equipment, things like that. So it's a region to region issue. So the approach I took in developing the microgreens business was, and I've brought this up before I'm designing the business for success, which means as I grow as a business, these guidelines and regulations that exist at different levels become more and more important. And I often use the analogy of if I want to sell jam at the farmer's market, I just need to have my food safe and a little sign up at the market that says, I make this jam at home, not in a commercial kitchen.
And then as soon as I want to start selling provincially or in other provinces or into other countries, as it is with all products, your level of accountability goes up. So keep in mind the thing that everybody's doing when they grow microgreens is they're growing food to sell to the public. And so the sanitation becomes an important issue.
What in terms of just liability, we live in a libelous society and these things should be a concern. And the other thing is just in terms of product integrity. If somebody eats your product and gets sick not only is there liability issues, but there's business issues a recall or bad press could be devastating for our business.
So those are a couple of sort of perspectives on in the beginning, why I basically tried to design a system that met Canadian guidelines for sprouting production with our microgreen operation. Which is tedious at first, but at this point it's just a routine, it's just built into the system. So it really is about designing a system that's designed to succeed, which means to grow and sell to a wider audience. And as you sell the different types of markets they're going to have different requirements and so we can sell it to farmer's market as is, pretty much no problem. Our requirement is bringing stuff in a cooler and keeping it cold.
If we want to sell to a grocer, some grocers have very strict policies on what they will and will not buy. So Whole Foods here in Canada, when we looked into Whole Foods, I believe we needed to have a certified HACCP or hazard analysis and critical control point plan in order to sell to whole foods, whereas other grocers didn't need that.
But often people do ask what are your protocols and whatnot. And we kind of break it down to three. So one is we do follow the guidelines issued by the Canadian food inspection agency, which are guidelines they're not required. The second one is we have standard operating procedures for everything that we do as in the workflow, which really are built on HACCP principles. So where are the points in the production process, right. From getting the seed in to dropping off the product at the customer and really having the product on the shelf in a grocery store and your critical control point, there is making sure the package is closed.
Doing regular testing of the product that allowed to look for any sort of fluctuations of we're seeing a spike in the presence of any microbes or anything whatsoever. So we do those things. And then when somebody does ask, we're prepared and some grocers and markets are flexible and others are quite strict.
Diego: [00:06:29] With the regulations in Canada, where you are operating, what would be the littlest you could get away with? Did you have to do any of this? Cause this is one thing that I see come up all the time. Do I have to do anything with regards to food safety? It's one thing to say, I'm going to take a proactive approach and I am going to do something, but it's another thing to say, like, I don't have to, so I'm not gonna.
Could you have not done anything and still been okay to sell.
Chris Thoreau: [00:06:58] So once again, in Canada, for sprouts, they are guidelines, they are not regulations. And so they're not required. They're very strongly suggested. And to play on that a little bit, because there's guidelines and because they exist and because I know they exist, if I don't follow them, and something happens. That's an issue.
And even if you're not aware of them and something happens, you can't really plead ignorance. Ignorance is not generally a plead in Canada in legal matters. I don't know how it is in the US, but it is your responsibility to know what your what your responsibilities are when running your business.
Now beyond the sprouting guidelines, thirsty and kind of that we have the food safety act. And in general, like with anything like that, the general principle is you must do due diligence and so I think we often do this stuff without even thinking about it. We wash our hands, we package things. We do a lot of these things.
But once again, when you're selling a product to the public, you need to step that up a little bit, whatever you're doing to sell to eat at home, or maybe trade with your friends, that's up for you. You all to decide and you can take more risk or whatever, but because they're guidelines I, in the beginning, didn't do everything I would have liked to do because it was too hard to do that.
I was really careful about the things I did do. I did really good sanitation from the beginning, sanitizing the benches, sanitizing the trays. There are things that we didn't do regular testing of the product, like that was just too expensive and too much at the time. So it's one of those things that you build up over time and you try to work towards, and I think that's when we get inspected by the Canadian food inspection agency, the thing they say is it's like level of impact.
So even if we have to do a recall they're like, well, you actually don't need to you don't actually need to call your farmer's market customers or anything to restaurants and you actually just need to get in touch with the grocers. And so there's, even with that, it's in flexibility. Whereas if we were selling inter-provincially, for example, then, then there would be a different process. So even the sort of That health institutions, organizations um, regulatory bodies, sorry. You know, they recognize that as well. Uh, and so there is a bit of flexibility there, but it's good to have those things there in the middle or in the beginning.
So I actually wrote guidelines in my first year of growing microgreens that I wasn't following because they were the guidelines I was aiming for. And so I always have those in my mind.
Diego: [00:09:52] For somebody that's setting out to do this whether, let's say not because they have to, but because they are following these strongly suggested guidelines, how critical do you think it is to document what you're doing?
Not necessarily just upfront with a standard operating procedure, but logging things like walk in temperature or today on March 31st, we sanitize the bench. Should you have records showing that you're actually doing what your procedures say you're doing?
Chris Thoreau: [00:10:25] If you don't have the records, then you're not doing it. Even if you're doing it. So that, that's how it works from an inspection point of view. They're basically saying, well, it's great that you've got this book that has all these things in it, but you have no log to show you've done it. Do you have no signatures? You have no dates. You have nothing. So that's how it's through that documentation that you demonstrate your accountability.
And the example I always give is you go into a public washroom and you look on the back of the door and there's a little chart there. And this says, like this. Bathroom was last checked by so-and-so at such and such time on such and such a date. And if something happens and somebody goes into that bathroom and slips on the floor and bangs their head, the first thing we're going to do is I'm going to take that log.
Now that log isn't everything. And there's actually been a recent, a interesting case in BC where there's service contractors that maintain roads here in the wintertime as there is everywhere. And what's interesting is people were complaining about the roads that the instructors come in and they don't go in.
They don't check, they don't check the roads. They check the logs. Like nobody goes out and checks the roads and measures the amount of salt on the road. They check your records, first of all. And so at the same time, and I can't remember what happened, but I think the record was there, but this whole thing didn't actually get done.
So you can make all the logs you want. You can just have them auto-fill by some piece of software, I'm sure. And have an electronic log and never do anything. The logs are your commitments to demonstrating your following through with those procedures.
Diego: [00:12:01] Let's say somebody has loose guidelines where they're not even strongly suggested in their jurisdiction. What are the things that you would do just from operating in this space for as long as you did to say, I wouldn't sell microgreens without doing these things, regardless of what was suggested in the regulations?
Chris Thoreau: [00:12:26] Well, one of the problems with that is once you start to doing something. Not doing it isn't an option. Like there's been a few times where I've been in a rush or we've been at a sanitizer at, at the food paddler's and I grow a crop without them. And it just feels like it's like getting into a car without a seatbelt. It's like I dunno, I could think of a whole bunch of really bad analogies, but they won't use that, but it just doesn't feel right.
Um, and so, but there, there are a few things. And so the other piece about this is. The sanitation actually helps you grow a better product. Um, so for example, I could always tell when we weren't washing our trays as much, or weren't cleaning the benches as much or work doing our sanitation routine as much, because we'd get more disease in the crops.
And so. Uh, and I always had a sense that was coming. It's like, ah we're rushing, we're busy. We're not getting things done as quickly. And then inevitably we would see more disease. We'd have a fungal disease come in some sort of virus and you, you get rid of it by just sanitizing, everything.
And you, you, you bleach it all and you, you kill as much as you can. And then you recontinue. Um, and I'm really mindful, like my, my. My paradigm is not you know, start with a sterile environment and don't let anything live. Uh, not by any means. We, we do really value a biologically active environment.
Um, but you actually, you need to keep things clean in order to keep that bile biology. Biology beneficial. So there's a balance area we're not in there fumigating things and dumping chemicals on everything. Randomly. We do things in a way to make sure we fund a regular routine and things just to stay generally fairly clean.
So that that's a big one, Ruth, the routine cleaning. And we do this in our homes. We do this in our workplace. Like, so why we wouldn't do this with a, with a microgreens production? I don't know. It should be just a natural thing to do. The other thing would be keeping your product cold. Um, your product is going to look better at the market.
If you can keep it in the cooler as long as possible, and it's going to have a much longer shelf life for your customer. If you keep it cold, every time it warms up and cools down and warms up and cools down each one of those events significantly shortens. The life of your product. And so if you're thinking if you're looking at the wide picture of what you're offering your customers one of the things that we've always gotten good feedback on is there's no waste product in restaurants, you know The way we've got it set up is even, even if a restaurant misses their delivery and has a product for a week.
And instead of having two deliveries a week that that product looks almost as good on day seven, as it did on day one. And you can't have a product to maintain its integrity that long if you don't store it properly. So our goal is cut packaging into the fridge as soon as possible, like just minutes.
Um, and that that's key that that's not just. Human health. It's, it's the longevity of your product. It's the impression of your product with your customers? And it's a, an extended shelf life. So the two basics are routine sanitation and cleaning and keeping things cold.
Diego: [00:15:46] One thing we were talking about before we got recording was just the cost of doing this. And when I think about people doing something that I'll say a semi-optional, open for interpretation. They're either not doing it because it's too expensive or because it's too much work. When somebody has 200 flats a week that they're doing. What goes into that is, are you scrubbing every flat every week?
And it's just part of the job and the costs there is really just the labor because I'm thinking, well, if you're using a solution to do this, like that's not expensive at all.
Chris Thoreau: [00:16:28] I know there's many components to where the cost comes from. There's yeah. There's your sanitizer costs, which is.
Pennies per portray. And that even at 200, even at a thousand trays a week, it's not a lot. Um, but there is time that goes into it. Um, it does take time to wash trays. It takes time to do your, your, your sort of your regular sanitation and cleaning you know you know, cleaning shelves, things like that.
So labor as in most things is a major expense there. Um, And as a portion of your, as a, of a portion of your hours, it's measurable you could kind of go, yeah, I know that there's a portion of how many hours go into this. Like 10 to 15% is really just cleaning. You know, when I think of a harvest, we'll do a harvest, we'll start it.
8:00 AM and be done by noon. And then it's three hours of cleaning and a couple of hours of delivery and things like that. So, so it is it is a significant, um labor costs. And so this is important if, if we're looking at it from a business development point of view it's a factor we need to put in there.
And if, if you're building your business more on this idea that a train is worth 20 or twenty-five dollars, and you need to just produce those trays as quickly as possible, then on paper, it looks like a really, really good business. But if, if you can't maintain that because. Your sanitation program is poor and someone gets sick or you're just getting constant diseases in your crop.
You know, it'd be the idea of this, this $20 a tray sort of return is it's an illusion. And so I think it's important to be realistic about the numbers. And I probably wasn't that realistic in the beginning. Like I had this idea as well, like, wow, there's good money to be made here, but the hours that go into it Are a lot.
And it wasn't until really sort of more formally doing a business plan and looking at what the cost into that $25 a tray is, is where you start to realize, Oh yeah, there's there's the labor for, for, for the producing the tray and then cleaning up afterwards, there's their seeds or soil. Then there's the time at the market.
There's your travel time? There's repairs. Uh, there's your insurance on top of that, your liability insurance, which, which people don't have. Um, and these are just all the natural costs of doing business. And realistically, it's why businesses are hard to run and they're stressful and people go bankrupt.
So I think within that, Going back to other previous things we've talked about is you need to be very efficient about everything you do. You don't need to be like taking your time, sanitizing things, isn't going to make it any better. You want to just have your protocol and follow it and set that protocol up to be as efficient as possible because your efficiency actually does significantly reduce your labor costs by making sure that stuff is done in a reasonable amount of time.
Diego: [00:19:26] You mentioned something there in regards to liability insurance. Can you talk about how you approached insurance? I know you're in Canada and a lot of people listening to this are in the US, but this is a big topic. I think it's not discussed very much. I don't think we've ever talked about it on the show. I've talked about it a lot on the livestock side of things with some podcasts I do there.
But when you were selling these microgreens to people, to stores, to restaurants, How did you approach insurance as a business owner?
Chris Thoreau: [00:20:00] So for many years, I didn't you know, probably for the first, maybe even three or four years as a sole proprietor, I had no business insurance and it wasn't even that big a cost, I think, seven or $800 a year, but it was just it was a five month, a year operation. It was kind of just me and one other person. And it was just so small scale that It's not something I, I really wanted to do. I was still a bitch, like. You know regulations in a way.
I can only jump through so many hoops despite all the things I've just told you at heart. All these guidelines and regulations, they drive me nuts, but it goes back to building a business for success and kind of growing up and what made me, what made me kind of have to go through the insurance process was, was turning the business into a cooperative. So that was one thing. You know, now, now we're an organization. And so as, as member owners, we're also board members and we have accountable legal accountabilities as a board member to, to look out for the interest of the co-op.
So, so that was one thing. And then the other thing is once again, with scale when we were doing things five months a year, like really the number of people that eat our product is pretty low. We I saw every single bit, every single. Individual sprout that left that site. Um, I saw, and as they got bigger there were days I wasn't there.
I didn't do everything. Uh, we had hired people, I had partners. Um, we have protocol, I could only hope people were following them. So there's, there's just more, there's more factors there. And so And we scaled up we were selling to multiple restaurants, grocers our, our grocery business really expanded selling to other delivery programs.
And so just the level of accountability went up. And so that was just something that, that had to happen. And in terms of the insurance, like basically I'm, I'm not an expert on insurance, but insurance people are. So we sat down with our local insurance, said, here's what we do. We need to be covered.
You know what does this cover for? What doesn't it. And basically walk through that with them. And they put together a package that works for us. Uh one of the things to consider is your level of liability. You know, are you insured for a million dollars or up to $10 million? You know, that that's going to affect your, your costs.
Um, And so those are questions you have to think about as well. Like what is the risk of once again, the risk of having a 10, $10 million claim and Yeah, like, do you, do you have enough confidence in your systems to know you're doing your due diligence, that the likelihood is pretty low as well?
So finding something reasonable, like you would with your say your car insurance, for example.
Diego: [00:23:01] I'm assuming if in Canada it's like it is here in the US, to get a lot of protection insurance wise, it's actually relatively cheap in terms of an annual premium.
Chris Thoreau: [00:23:11] Yeah. And it depends your premiums based on like here, ours is based on our sales, you know? And so, so as a relatively small business, that's not a lot and then your level of coverage, and then what you've got covered, like we've got liability insurance, which kind of protects our business against young people, getting sick, things like that. Uh somebody gets hurt while they're visiting that.
The site, things like that. Um, and then we've also got like our, our container greenhouses insured. Our, we have insurance on our seedstock we, we carry $10,000 in insurance for seeds because you know, we've got this seed just sitting there. We carry insurance for our germinating and growing crop, which is several thousand dollars.
Um things like that. It ensures us that the farmer's market. So what we're covered in a lot of ways could maybe be more covered. Yeah. I seem to recall a guy going through a pretty robust. I'm process with the insurer, just to make sure like we're covered we've got insurance, we're doing our due diligence and yeah, something happens, it's going to be shitty, but that's what insurance is for.
Diego: [00:24:15] Tying into all this, one area that I see as a vector for potential disease to come into the crop, bad, but not as bad as somebody getting sick as the product just doesn't last as long as sending product out that's wet when it goes to the customer and we've got this question recently and it involves spinning microgreens and there's a lot of different ways out there to do this now. Would you approach spinning microgreens, which I see as kind of dainty, although pea shoots and sunflower shoots, maybe not so dainty, with one of the washing machine type conversions, or how would you approach. Drying some of these microgreens that you do have to wash?
Chris Thoreau: [00:25:03] Um, yeah, so we've got, we've the many iterations of this.
Um, I'm recalling right now, both radish and buckwheat in a spinner. And there's two things that happens with both of those crops. They get damaged and they don't actually get dry. So we, we have different protocols for different crops to make sure that when they go into the package, they're dry and for most crops, at this point, we keep them dry.
So something like radish we've got four days where it's right. Maybe that first the first day of I'll get overhead water, maybe the second day. But after that, there's no water on the leaf ever again, two days of dryness. So when we go to that ride a shift it's actually dry to double make doubly.
Sure. That's the case. We have fans over our radish crop all the time. Like. Having that radish dry, when it gets caught is the only way to make it a feasible product. Um, other crops like P have you grown pea shoots like peas, just shed water you could water pee right up to the last day and the next day it will be perfectly dry.
They're cut. And they go right into the bag as well. So these are The other issue was Holly ties into is a question that might come up is, do you wash your crops before packaging them? You know, are they when you can wash your crops and water, you can wash your crops in a bleach or a hydrogen peroxide or a parasitic solution before packaging them to make a ready to eat product.
There's a lot of different things you can do. And this was one of the things that had us washing products in the beginning. So we could say we did wash it, but the reality is when we're doing our overhead watering, we are washing that product. You know, we're washing it in situ while it's still growing.
And so we, we do want to do the overhead watering to clean it off, but then we want to give it some time to Ascension. So there's no more water on it. And we also have very good. Practices in the greenhouse to make sure there's no contamination afterwards so we're very careful about what's above the crop and how we handle it in order to keep it clean.
So basically most stuff we pack dry and it does fine as long as once again, it's being cut and packaged and put into the fridge right away. But that's crucial. The one crop that we don't do that with the sunflower. And there's, there's two main reasons for that. One is to get those holes removed. Uh, it's really, really easy to do in water.
It's it's the easiest method and we could do that very, very quickly. The other thing is, is every alternative method I've tried for packaging sunflower without washing them within two to three days, we start to see oxidation on the, on the cut point. And it really is only when we, they got a couple minutes in cold water and then get dried that they don't get to that.
And that really contributes to the longevity. It's a huge factor of the sunflowers and extending the shelf life basically, and it's not until day seven that you start to see any sort of changing in color or changing in quality at that point. And so that's a product that it's worth going through that with.
And because it's a because it's a more Hardy microgreen, it actually stands up fairly well in the spinner. Um, but just the process of putting them into the spinner and taking them out of the spinner is damaging as well. You know, basically every time you handle a product risks damage. So it is a bit unfortunate there.
Um, but generally we just we try to do that mindful you don't throw them in and just grab a chunk, a handful and. Rip them out. Do you handle them gently and you can generally keep your, your damage down to a minimum in terms of keeping things dry as well, and keeping the quality up in an ideal system I would probably grow on a similar cycle, but instead of getting everything ready to harvest, say on like the Friday morning when we're harvesting, I would take everything on the Thursday evening when it's dry and I would put it into a walk-in cooler.
And so we're actually cooling the crop significantly overnight. And then when we cut it, it's already cut at out a very cold temperature and packaged and put into the fridge right away. Whereas what we do now, this time of year assigned, when we take we take stuff out of the greenhouse, it kind of comes outside and.
In our prep area, it's quite cold. And so if the crop does cool down, but in the summer when we do that and we bring it over, it kind of maintains that, and this is the same concept of fealty to kind of maintain the field feuds. And so I think we could actually extend that the life of the product even more.
And we're getting probably a minimum of eight days on radish, which is our least keeping crop. But as you get into the danger ones, like a Rouge, Sheila and cilantro and whatnot, Those are crops that I think would really benefit from having, even if it's just a couple hours in the cooler to bring that crop down and then cut it cold, package it and put it into the fridge would really extend its life.
So that again, it's product quality, but it's this concept of. Keeping things at a low temperature is also a way to reduce microbial growth. Like stuff doesn't grow at three to five degrees Celsius or whatever that is in Fahrenheit. And so you, you even if they're in there, something present the risk of it, getting somebody sick is really, really small.
So these are the factors that like even if. Everything is up to speed. Just keeping things cold, which is a really, really easy thing to do. And maintaining the cold chain is a really, really easy thing to do that that reduces your risk probably more than as much as every other factor combined.
Diego: [00:30:48] We're thinking about a crop health standpoint and a consumer health standpoint from somebody eating the microgreens. Let's think about soil here. You guys eventually moved on to getting your soil made for you delivered in totes, but for people starting out, there's a lot of options out there. Going the tote route might be hard to justify.
And the other option then is going a bagged potting soil route, which I know a lot of people do, but sometimes in those bags, like I've opened bags and they're moldy when you open them. How would you advise somebody to approach soil from a pathogen standpoint, if they're still on the smaller scale and just starting out?
Chris Thoreau: [00:31:38] Yeah, that's a good question. And a good example, which, which I haven't experienced. And so hearing that something that you've experienced kind of makes me go, huh? No. What would I do in that situation? So then the number one thing I would do is you've got to learn who the good soil providers are. You know, we I've gotten soil from different companies over the years, but the soil we get now, we've got a company that mixes it for us arrange us a delivery.
If we want them to test a component of it, to see if there was pathogens present, we'll do that. There were a reputable company. And so I would do the same thing above looking for a, a a soil mix or something that's pre-packaged so I'd be looking at like a sunshine potting mix or something like that that meets my needs.
But it's coming from a fairly reputable well-known well-respected company. As opposed to like, Oh, look, this this mushroom in newer potting mixes on sale from Bob's garden center you know, maybe different size companies have, once again, they have different they have different protocols for how clean their product needs to be in a big, big company is going to have more strict protocols.
Um, so just like they would with microgreens. So you need to know who those companies are and do your best to source their stuff. Um, but it's good. You want, you want to test different products out just like you would test different seeds and you know, find out what's gonna work for your system.
Uh, if you want to be even more sure you can get in touch with the company and say like, can you tell me a little bit about your processing? You know, how you do this, how you do that. And a lot of companies are pretty happy to share that or actually have that information on their website. So it's a little bit of homework.
It's a little bit of trial and error. Um obviously talking to other growers is another great way to get a sense of what's working and what's not. Um, but as I said about seed, as I said about other things, when you find something you like, like stick with it don't make change unless there's a reason to make change.
And you know, if you do open that that bale of sunshine mix one day and you do see mold in there, you call the company right away and you say I've been using your mix for a long time. I opened the space. This was the problem I saw. You're going to get your money back. They're probably going to send you a credit in the end.
You're probably gonna benefit and you take that bail back and you get another one. It's shitty that it's more time and it's more energy and more effort, but that's just another one of those sort of you know, costs you incur as a business owner that you don't want to, but the reality is 10 to 15, 10 to 15% of your time is just basically wasted doing stuff.
Uh, not even related to your directly to production in your business.
Diego: [00:34:17] You're somebody who's tried a bunch of stuff over the years. For somebody who can just buy a sunshine mix off the shelf, would you just go with one of the ones that people use for vegetables starts or would you buy a whole bunch of different soils and test them out and see what works best.
Chris Thoreau: [00:34:32] I personally, we would go for a pre-mix something that has a, like a potting mix that has a perilite or a char or a mix of those upper life component. And then ideally a mineral component, like, like some lime added, maybe a like rock phosphate, green sand, just to a bit of stuff in there or a compost mix.
And I think there is some stuff out there like back, or I would buy like a basic potting mix, which was more a peat perlite mix. And then add my own compost, especially if I had A compost product that I really liked that I knew which we have here. There's a local compost. I really liked that.
I would probably want to put into my product and that way you're also the one determining the level of that. You can do your own mix overall. And the first year I used to bring in like a yard of soil at a time, a little bit, actually I just did a soil or. I do, I did compost and vermiculite was the first mixed mix I used.
And actually it was a very, very expensive mix, but things grew very well. Um, but that mixing soil takes time. And I think I was inconsistent and I had to always make sure I had the right stuff and it was just, it was hard. And then when things come premixed, it's, it's just, that's a big time saver. Um, and often cost-wise ends up being about the same.
So, because it's saving you time, it's saving you money. Um, But it's worth experimenting a little bit because just so you can do some comparisons and see can you get a 15 or 20% more yield by a different soil mix? Or can you buy a pre-mix and just modify it a little bit by adding a little bit of compost or adding some lime or adding a, like a calc meal or something, or as we were talking about earlier, like Your own sort of a biological solution, like a compost tea or actively aerated compost tea, or some kelp or liquid fertilizer or an enzyme mix.
Like those are things you can add in a liquid form or a powder form afterwards as well. So there's a lot of approaches, but in terms of ease by going and picking up a bale of something and taking it home is very, very easy. In the beginning, you want to make things as easy as possible because you're going to have enough challenges as it is.
Diego: [00:36:54] One thing I'm seeing a lot of people do lately. A lot of the people who I've interviewed recently are doing this is they are bottom watering everything. You didn't bottom water. If you think about bottom watering, if you were going to do that, how would you approach that? And why wouldn't you bottom water and why would you top water?
Chris Thoreau: [00:37:17] So we do have, we do mostly over-watering with the food Pedallers and a little bit of under watering as, as we just talked about, mostly the under watering is good because it keeps the tops dry. And some of the things like when you get into things like cilantro and arugula, they're really dainty. So watering above them actually just knocks them over. It brings them in contact with the soil, which means there might be more to wash off. Um, and so we do do a combination of overhead and under watering, the overhead watering, as I said before, it does rinse the crop. It's taking everything and moving it downward into the soil. So you are. Cleaning things as you go.
There's a lot of systems out there for under watering and there's a lot of hydroponic Lake systems and there's a lot of systems for the cannabis growing industry actually. And we did look at them. The challenge we had in using one of those systems is they were, they were standardized for a different system.
So you could buy like these eight by four basically apply with size sheet of these big. Watering trays. And you would actually just grow your microgreens in those trays or flood trays. And the water would go in at scheduled times and then drain out however it's done and really you would never actually have to do anything.
It would all happen automatically. If you recall, what, what I've talked about in the past is. Watering your crop is actually a very good time to spend with your crop because you're getting to look at it. You'd have to look at every tray. You get to make sure each tray has a bit less or a bit more water if it needs it.
And if you do see a problem, you're catching that problem. Right. Then you're not seeing like the day before harvest. It's like, Oh, We've actually got some problems here, which if you would've been watering two days ago, you might've caught those problems and been able to make the adjustments you needed to avoid them.
Um, but so what we couldn't find was a tray system that fit in our five foot long shelves. Like they just don't make. Five foot long watering trays, flood trays for our system. And we looked at doing something customized, getting something fabricated from a plastics place, and it was just way too expensive.
Cause it's way too custom. And so what we ended up doing, which takes a bit more time is getting like actually boots, trays, like Trey, you'd put at your front door to put your boots on to trap water. And I found these really good ones for about five bucks each at home Depot quite a few years ago. And they're the perfect depth.
And they're the perfect size that if I, if I put a tray in it and fill the water to the top of the of the watering tray, The microgreen tray basically soaks up all the water. It works out perfectly. And so it's a little bit of like putting a tray in and then taking it out and then filling it up and putting the next tray.
And but it's the same thing. Once you get into a routine, you can do that fairly quickly. And so it was a way to sort of being able to underwater some crops at a certain time, but that would having these sort of these bigger trays you know you know, within the whole system, if we had a different layout and more space, I might buy a big.
You know you know, four by eight foot watering tray, and then I could put all those trays in at once and do that and then just take them all out. But the next batch in our layout doesn't allow for that. And so once again, we came up with a solution that works for our system. And even though it wasn't ideal when we implemented it, we tried to make sure that we, we, we developed a system to allow us to do that very efficiently.
And also very hygienically again. All those trays, after we do our under watering, they go into our wash system, they get washed and they get sanitized. So all those things, again, they add another layer of detail to the operation. So that efficiency comes in very important again.
Diego: [00:41:12] Let's say it a lot more space and you could get a bigger setup in there. Would you do an automated bottom water system and not over-water on the crops that you overwatered? Or do you think there is a distinct advantage to over-watering certain things?
Chris Thoreau: [00:41:32] Some stuff I would continue to over-water I would over-water sunflower for sure. Um, I think the cooling down of the crops that you get in the summer actually improves the crop.
It does lush the crop. Um, I would do the same thing for peas and I would do it for every crop in the early stages. Uh, because you, if you don't, if you don't ever talk water, you'll see a lot of debris, little bits of perlite and little slates of of soil on there. So in the first couple of days, we, as I mentioned before, we over-water everything, we're just giving the crop a good cleaning.
It's not a huge amount of watering. We're not dousing the trays, but it really gives them a good rinse. Um, but if I had more space, it would be better that everything was. You know, the shelving unit that grows the sprouts is also the watering unit, which means once you're done with the overhead watering and automatically switches over to under watering, it all happens automatically.
So the trays sell up, they drain automatically Yeah, I would, I would definitely go that route. The thing it has is after each, each harvest, you then need to take those trays, those, those uh, sled trays, and you need to wash and sanitize them. And that was a factor for us. If we were to look at all the different five foot sections we have and all the different watering trays we would have to put in there that would actually add a huge amount of, of labor time in terms of being able to sanitize that material.
So because I'm so bloody neurotic about that, that, that was a factor. Whereas now once the, once the crop is off the shelf, we just we wipe down the shelf we scratching and we don't, we don't have to move anything. So that is a factor and there was a way to do that in situ, right? If you've got like a really good drainage system, you can open the drain right up, spray everything down, rinse really good give it a, a, a light spraying with a, whatever your sanitizer is either let that dry and evaporate or rinse that off again, then you might be able to just do that in situ
Diego: [00:43:31] Interesting thing to think about a lot of options out there for people that have space and with the cannabis industry, I think pushing a lot of these limits and brand new tech out there. There's more and more of this type of stuff coming out there.
One last thing I want to kind of close this episode out with is some of the crops that you can grow in these systems. The topic of very high-priced seed has come up in quite a few emails I've gotten recently when you start looking at very niche products.
When you look at products that might have an expensive seed, but have a high dollar value per ounce, in some cases, how do you approach seed costs versus what you can sell the product for? If you are going to grow something, is there a profit percentage you're looking at per tray because I'm assuming most of the tray cost is in the seed itself.
Chris Thoreau: [00:44:28] Well, most of the trade cost is in the labor actually. Um, your, your labor costs. Do you think if you're filling that tray with soil, you're seeding the, say tray, you're watering the tray over time. Uh, you're harvesting that tray. You're washing that tray. Like there's a lot of labor that goes into that.
That is your biggest cost. Um, I'm recalling for sunflower. The cost of a tray with soil and seed is about a dollar 88. And for radish. So when I think about a high value crop, we, we do like a radish mix. And one of those seeds is a, is a red daikon radish, which is about four times the size of the size of the price of the regular radish.
And so even that, that cost comes through about like, Two eight, two 75, two 80, maybe portray with seed. And once again, so that's not a big percentage of the cost of the tray. Um, more, it's going to be the labor, like does a tray take 10 seconds to cut? Like it does with sunflower or it, or does it take two minutes?
Like it does with a root gala? Um, so there's, there's your labor costs is actually a bigger factor than your seed. Um, and what we look at in terms of pricing, the tray is. We price it on the return for the tray generally. So each tray we're trying to get anywhere from 15 to $30 depending on the market.
And so you, you price it based on what you need based on the yield. So that's going to give you a different per unit wage price for every product. If you had a seed that was particularly expensive, that was bringing your tray up, cost up from $2 to like $6 that's, that's a different story.
Uh, and you would definitely want to adjust your price to account for that. Uh, and you would basically be saying to your chef or your grocery customers, like you're paying for, you're paying for rarity, you're paying for something that nobody else can do. Uh, and so if you want me to grow that for you, I will, but here's the price you're going to pay.
And they're either going to say, great, we've got the money or no. Okay. I get it. You know, that's, that's ridiculous. So yeah, that's the factor is just basically. You know, your labor and seed costs both need to be considered. Labor is usually a bigger consideration. I do see a lot of there's. There's a few microgreens forums.
I follow one on Facebook and I see people asking questions. I think people want to have the next crop what can I grow that nobody else has growing? Uh, what can I grow that nobody's thought of? Um, and these, these are good. I think we should always be thinking these things. Um, but growing stuff, because it's new and different, isn't a reason to grow up.
You know, you have to have a market for it. And we get requests every once in a while for something really strange and obscure or something really hard to grow. And we're like we, we would, but you know, if you're, if we're going to grow this for you, we need to know we have a market elsewhere. And if we can find a market elsewhere, your price per unit is going to be very, very high.
So it's why we end up with these sort of standard products of P sunflower, radish, buckwheat wheat grass. Um, over time you can create a new market and sometimes you just if you grow it, they will come. Uh, so you just need to choose. I see a lot of people trying to build like two crops that come to mind are shiso and flax.
I've seen people asking about them lots over the years and. You know, I'm thinking about the costs and the rarity of those, the quality of your end product how many people would buy it. Uh, and then, yeah, like, so, and comparing that to other things. So you have to really think about why you're doing that.
Um, and whether, whether there is going to be a market for it in the end.
Diego: [00:48:09] There you have it, sanitation and food safety for growing microgreens. As I said at the very beginning of the show, this is one topic that I think is really important. If I was starting a commercial, microgreen operation, this is one area that I would pay a lot of attention to and put a lot of effort into because of the thing I don't want at the end of the day is I don't want somebody to get sick for my product.
And I don't want to get sued or have my operations shut down because something is not regulatory compliance. If you want to learn more about food, safety and sanitation, when it comes to growing micro greens, you can do so directly from Chris and his online course, growing your microgreens business. The course covers all aspects of commercial, micro production, going from fundamentals to specifics with sections on equipment and infrastructure, hygiene, and sanitation, crop production, harvesting, packaging, and transport and sprout regulations.
Each topics covered in detail, including important tips in methodologies, all the content is based on Chris's actual experience growing microgreens for the last 10 years. As you heard in this episode, there's a lot to think about when you start growing microgreens commercially. So get Chris's knowledge ahead of time to help narrow down what you need to focus on and what you need to work on.
To learn more about Chris's course and see some sample video from the cores. Visit permaculture voices.com/ .
Diego: [00:49:43] That's all for this one. Thanks for listening today. Next week, I won't be back with another episode. I'm taking two weeks off here for spring break. So you'll get a brand new episode three weeks from today, 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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