Everything about Marvin Wilhite's farm is small — except the demand for his crop. His hydroponic operation uses less land and water than a traditional farm, but he pulls in $30 a pound for the microgreens he grows. You could imagine that as about 48 bags from the produce section of your supermarket.
The tiny, leafy vegetables, harvested before they reach an inch in height, are popular at high-end restaurants, including Cafe Ponte in Clearwater and Mise en Place in Tampa. They're tender and flavorful, and orders are on the rise as more chefs discover them and holistic doctors promote their nutritional value.
A delicate carpet of purple and green microgreens grows in a raised, shallow bed of sterilized white pebbles at Cahaba Club Herbal Outpost. The tables sit in a cooled greenhouse that protects fragile greens from rain and sun. A week after the seeds are sowed, the thin, tender stems measure about three-quarters of an inch: ready to harvest.
Wilhite grows 14 types of microgreens at his farm, including mustard, beets, broccoli and cabbage. Sampled fresh from the greenhouse, the micro mustard has a bit of a spicy kick like horseradish; the micro basil tastes more potent than its big brother. Chefs like the deep purples and greens — the "bling bling" on the plate, Wilhite said.
"It looks a lot prettier than parsley, and it tastes a lot better," he said.
But he didn't start growing microgreens for their look.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that broccoli shoots contain the cancer-fighting agent sulforaphane, more even than fully grown broccoli. So when his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1999, he began to cultivate the greens. Her cancer went into remission for five years, and though it's impossible to directly link the greens to her improved health, he noted that she ate them every day.
Many of Wilhite's microgreens are sold to restaurants in the bay area and beyond — even Philadelphia and New York, he said. Of course, chefs are more concerned with how it looks on the plate than the phytochemicals.
But some doctors are becoming distributors, selling Wilhite's microgreens to patients. Bill Huggins, a researcher at the Nutritional Health Institute Laboratories in Clearwater, suggests that people battling chronic illnesses try microgreens.
"It's basically the best kind of nutrition you can get from the plant kingdom," he said.
As the vegetables grow in popularity, farmers are taking notice. Each year, small-farm operators gather in North Florida to learn new techniques. This year extension agent Robert Hochmuth of Live Oak gave tips on how to start growing microgreens, another option for small farmers looking to diversify their crop.
"The diversity is important so they don't have all their eggs in one basket," he said.
Of course, now that everyone's using microgreens, top chefs are looking for the next trend: a slightly larger version. These "tiny exotic vegetables" — about 1.5 inches tall — taste a lot like microgreens but they look different because they've reached the second leaf stage. The micro mustard's tiny leaves begin to look like gloves, Wilhite said.
Chris Ponte, chef-owner of Cafe Ponte, said he's interested in these tiny vegetables, which are smaller than the types of baby vegetables often found in salads.
"Once the mainstream gets the product, it takes away from the wow factor for the guests," he said.
Wilhite keeps in touch with chefs, and he recently started a greenhouse devoted to tiny vegetables.
"It's something people haven't seen before," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.