FARM 23 - Local microgreens pack a healthy, tasty punch
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
When Pat Leonard and his wife Heather Chechak-Leonard wanted to expand their heirloom vegetable business, they moved from their large farm property on Parr Line in Clinton to a townhouse in Seaforth. The downsizing isn’t an issue for their crops - these two passionate cooks grow microgreens, which don’t take up much space at all.
Microgreens are baby plants, harvested as soon as the sprouts have developed their first leaves. These tiny plants are nutrient dense, flavourful and downright adorable. There are a lot of health benefits to eating microgreens. Pat was kind enough to explain how such minute foliage can pack such a wallop. “For a whole grown fruit, a lot of those nutrients are in the vine, or the leaf, the inedible things… you still get a lot of nutrients, it’s just a lot leaner. In a pound of microgreens, you’ll find more nutrients than a pound of any full grown fruit or vegetable, across the board. Everything is concentrated in this small stem.” Since you eat the entire plant, you absorb all of its nutrients.
Pat got his start in the small community of Temiskaming Shores in Northern Ontario. Coincidentally Temiskaming Shores is also home to the Ontario Crops Research Centre, a facility owned by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario (ARIO) and operated and managed by the University of Guelph through the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, a partnership between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), ARIO and the university. The research conducted at the Ontario Crops Research Centre focuses on agricultural interests ranging from adapted crop species to perennial forage species.
Pat got started in the farm-to-fork movement early, saying “I’ve been cooking since forever… 26 years of cooking, and we’ve always had gardens at my place, so I started very young with the green thumb.”
Pat and Heather met in North Bay while managing a pub together, before moving to Clinton, where they started their business, Veggies on Parr.
What prompted their move to Huron County six years ago? “We heard it was a bountiful county, more opportunities in the kitchen for me, more opportunity for our daughter, so we made the move up here.” Both passionate chefs and dedicated gardeners, when they first arrived, they chose a sprawling farm property on Parr Line in Clinton.
Having a long history of gardening and cooking experience, Pat and Heather made microgreens the most recent addition to their business. “That all started when I saw the opportunity when I started working at Cowbell.” At first, Veggies on Parr grew heirloom vegetables, focusing on tomatoes, zucchini, and romanesco. Occasionally Pat would share excess produce with his lucky coworkers, arriving at the restaurant with a rainbow of heirloom tomatoes from which they could have their pick.
Soon enough, it became obvious that expanding on a micro level just made sense. “We saw the opportunity for microgreens, so I converted my basement into a nursery.” He felt Cowbell, Blyth’s local brewery, could use microgreens in their kitchen. “I was already in the kitchen, and I brought it up to them, and they were all for it.” One of the environmentally innovative uses for the sprouts was in lieu of disposable napkins under scalding bowls of soup to keep them from slipping into the laps of hungry customers.
After that, Pat and Heather expanded further, selling their greens at small markets like Maitland Market and Supply in Goderich. “Erica at the Maitland Market was a big help… she was actually one of our first buyers outside the restaurant.”
How do two chefs start a microgreen farm in their basement? First, there’s the initial investment cost, which included seeds, trays, grow lights and exhaust fans, which added up to around $3,500. “Fans are your best friend,” Pat explained. The greens are delicate and densely packed in a damp environment, and can be prone to mould, so airflow is of the utmost importance. The tender shoots need a very specific situation to thrive in - if it’s too warm, they wilt. If it’s too cold, they won’t grow. Seeds are sown in trays, which are stacked on racks and misted on a schedule. After three or four days, the seeds sprout, and the light schedule begins, and the greens are harvested a short time later.
A more energy-rich diet isn’t the only great thing about growing greens - they’re also quick! “If you look at a plot of radishes, it takes a few weeks to grow that; as for a flat of radish microgreens, you harvest in 10 days. You have a turn-over every week and a half.” A flat produces about a pound of microgreens. This tiny subterranean farm is a four-season operation that grows a veritable Eden of varieties. There are pea shoots, sunflowers, radishes, beets, broccoli, and wheat, just to name a few. The speedy grow-time has an added bonus for their customers - restaurants only need to give Veggies on Parr their order a few weeks in advance, and they can sow, grow and deliver the greens posthaste! It can be labour intensive, however. “Sowing is the biggest day, once a week, you can go from two to five hours.” Larger seeds like peas need to be soaked, and sensitive seeds like sunflowers need to be treated with food-safe peroxide.
There have been a few time-saving additions to their operation since the recent move to Seaforth. The first is an automatic misting system, which has the dual benefit of saving time and regulating the environment. Without it, they’d still be watering manually three times a day. Another smart upgrade has been switching away from planting in dirt to using coconut mats, which are less messy and have less risk of harbouring mould.
Pat and Heather’s upcoming plans for Veggies on Parr include a possible rebrand (as they are no longer located on Parr Line), getting back into larger scale heirloom vegetable production on the surplus land of local farmers and maybe even becoming seed suppliers themselves.
Right now, Veggies on Parr operates largely by word of mouth, but Pat and Heather plan to post updates on their Facebook and Instagram accounts with fresh news about what’s fresh this spring and summer.