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NZ: Microgreen side hustle takes off as urban sprawl takes over

Microgreen growers are increasing in popularity as urban sprawl continues to swallow up prime horticultural land. Helena O'Neill with chats with a new microgreen grower about his decision to set up his home business on top of a full-time job.

Tucked away in a spare room of his Pukekohe home, Chris Thomas is cultivating a small but profitable venture. It's early days for his microgreens business, Totara Urban Grow, but Chris is part of a growing number of Kiwis embracing the highly nutritious shoots. 

"My grandparents owned their own garden center in New Plymouth," Chris says. "Each school holiday, we would go stay with them and help around the greenhouse and that sort of thing. My father was really into his garden, and when we got to this place, it was 'which garden will I do first?' Along with doing a vegetable garden, I started growing seedlings."

Keen to try something different, Chris read about microgreens being grown in urban locations like the Crunchy operation in Invercargill, run by Bibhas (Benji) Biswas. "I started some test growing, and my partner said if I were to keep doing it, then I should at least make some money from it. It went from a hobby to a small Sunday market.

"We had been to the Clevedon Farmers' Market a couple of times and thought we would try that first and see how that went. We're about four months into that now. Most of our conversations are about what microgreens are. Everyone has heard about sprouts, and they're quite popular. They're just the next stage of growth of the plant, the microgreens."

Selling at the Clevedon Farmers' Market is a big-time commitment, with Chris working a 47.5-hour week job and his partner, Sheldon, also working full-time while studying. "My partner has started helping a little bit more," he says. "Initially, it was coming to the markets while I do the day-to-day things with the growing and the watering. Every now and then, he will jump in and help with the seeding. We're now taking turns manning the stall on Sunday."

Totara Urban Grow has up to six varieties growing at any one time. "We started with sunflower, pea shoots, and radish, which are usually the go-tos," says Chris. "We made a bit of a mix from that. Then we were asked a bit about broccoli, so we tried that. Most weekends, broccoli is our most popular variety."

The duo dabbles a little in the other varieties like mustard, carrot tops, and coriander from time to time too.

"We've just started beetroot, which catches people's eye with the nice vibrant red," says Chris. "We've also tried kale and mizuna, the Japanese mustard. The ones we're currently growing for market seem to stick for now, [but] every now and then, we will swap one out.

"For the pea shoots we plant on a Monday, they're about 12 to 13 days to grow. They're the longest ones, and everything else takes around ten days to grow. It's a little bit hard to keep up with the market demand as to what quantity is required. It takes about two weeks to change up our cycle."

Totara Urban Grow uses recyclable and commercially compostable plastic packaging and aims to reduce any waste products. 

"Any waste that we get from the microgreens or from growing them goes to the lady who makes our stickers," says Chris. "They go to her chickens, and they love it."

Selling at a Farmers' Market offers a great opportunity for prospective buyers to see their products in person and for Chris to educate about microgreens.

"I don't mind talking about it and giving out samples," Chris says. "It's a bit of education around microgreens."

Early in August, Totara Urban Grow began offering EFTPOS at their market stall, which has already paid off in increased sales. 

"Other than being nutritious and good for you, microgreens have a lot of flavor. It helps with turning a normal sandwich into something with a little more flavor, something with flavor rather than boring lettuce. Or something to sprinkle on top of your meals. We've swapped our salads to use microgreens instead."

As a newcomer to the urban microgreen movement, Chris is impressed by the attitudes of fellow growers. "I was a little bit late in joining the Microgreens NZ Facebook page," he says. "It's full of knowledge, and I should've started there… everyone on there is super helpful.

"I get my seeds from South Pacific Seeds down here in Pukekohe or from Kings Seeds. It's a nice little community group to fall into.

"There are multiple growers throughout Auckland and further down the line – they're all so happy to share the information. Seeing someone else succeed in them succeeding. I'll pass that on when I see new people come on, too, to pass that knowledge on."

Coming from a construction background, Chris has found this willingness to share refreshing. "I think that's what has made me stick at it, knowing that there are those people there with a willingness to share," he says. "Every batch of seed is different, and each grow cycle is different. It's about trying to gain that consistency.

Chris says he plans on developing his burgeoning microgreens business further, too. "Expansion is definitely what I'm aiming for. We're just in the process of getting our food certificate so we can get selling to local businesses.

"We can only go so far at Clevedon; we will aim to supply restaurants and cafés. Here in Pukekohe, there are plenty of bars and cafés. I want to start local and then go from there."

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