HAMBURG, Pa. — Judy Henderson doubted her green thumb as she struggled to keep her potted indoor plants alive. That was until she grew her first batch of microgreens. After moving to Berks County three years ago and setting up her little farmette, Humming Hills Farm, her garden and small microgreen operation flourished. The short growing cycle suited her well, she said, as “I like quick results.”
As with many people, 2020 was a rough year for Henderson. At the start of the year, she was recovering from two hip surgeries and using her down time to research more about the microgreens that were growing in her basement.
In March, Henderson says, she was just getting back into her work routine as a recorder for the local Social Security office when coronavirus hit the pause button, which is still on, and she had shifted her focus back to the greens. But during her time working a booth at Renninger’s Antiques & Farm Market in Kutztown, the itch to keep cultivating her microgreens grew.
“There’s no turning back,” she said. “I am going to still do this.”
Today, Henderson has moved from growing the greens in her home to setting up shop in a sizable shed on the property. The Humming Hills microgreen growing cycle starts with potting 20 trays with majority organic soil and coconut coir mats, which are fibrous mats made with coconut husks, and seeding a variety of microgreen seeds. Henderson seeds her trays by grams; the average tray can hold 30 grams of seed. She plants her basil at 8 grams a tray compared to beets, which need 60 grams a tray. After Henderson plants her trays, the seeds will often germinate within five days, she said, adding, “The best results are with organic soil.”
Placing the trays in blackout conditions for four days helps enhance the plant’s “intuition” to search for light, which increases its height. Temperature and humidity are also essential to the plant’s growth cycle, yet both environmental factors can destroy an entire crop. When the greens are in a room that is set at 70-74 degrees F, their growth is controllable. If it’s much hotter than 74 degrees, the cycle becomes shorter as the plant will grow faster. Controlling the humidity is a challenge, but the drier the air is in Henderson’s shed, the lower the risk of mold in the tray. “I (would) rather have to water something more,” she said. Henderson also waters her trays with a water pH of 6.7 depending on her plant’s daily needs.
By the third week, she cut off the shoots, the top of the plant, with a ceramic knife or scissors and places the plants in their packaging. The packaging of circular plastic containers adds up to an enormous cost for Humming Hills, especially if Henderson has a volume of leftover product after a farmers market. To reduce the waste and its associated costs, Henderson dehydrates the microgreen, sucking 97% of the moisture out of the plant and grinding it into a powder. The powder can be used in smoothies or as a seasoning for meals, Henderson said.
A mix of blackout conditions, organic soil and level pH water creates a more lush and favorable green product that her customers love. Humming Hill offers its growing customer base various green varieties such as broccoli, wheatgrass, spicy salad mix (broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, arugula, red cabbage and Southern giant mustard), curled cress basic salad mix (broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, arugula and Red Acre cabbage), and radishes. Henderson’s farm will also be debuting a new variety, popcorn shoots, a yellow microgreen that’s very sweet.
According to the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, these tiny immature forms of vegetables and herbs have four to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts as they are full of antioxidants like vitamins C and E.
Humming Hills has about 30 dependable customers, whom Henderson classifies as foodies or health-minded individuals. The farm’s average customer ranges from middle age to an older age bracket. Henderson says one of Humming Hills’ devoted customers is a woman in her 70s who visits the farm’s booth at Leesport Farmers Market and purchases a large quantity of broccoli every week.
However, Henderson would like to attract the 20-something millennial shopper, although that’s a struggle to do because there’s less of that demographic at Leesport. She hopes that will change once the farm website’s online subscription service becomes available. “I am very small, but I am dreaming big,” she said.
Along with selling at local farmers market in Berks County, Henderson was distributing her microgreens to Wanamaker’s General Store in Kempton and Kirbyville Farm Market in Fleetwood before the coronavirus caused disruptions. By partnering with another microgreen farm, EatMoGreens in Wernersville, at the Leesport Farmers Market, Henderson says she kept the farm’s sales steady through the last year. She estimates that she can move 32 trays of products a week.
While she doesn’t use any chemicals or pesticides, her product is not certified organic. Henderson said that she’s working on becoming naturally raised certified. However, Humming Hills is a member of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Market Development, Pa Preferred program. Henderson is often working to improve and iron out any kinks in the system to make the most beneficial product for her customers.
“I try to do the best for the end result and for the people eating these greens,” she said.