As a chef, Greg Graft knew what he wanted when it came to fresh ingredients.
“I had a little garden plot at the restaurant where I worked,” said Graft. “I grew herbs, tomatoes and peppers to use at the restaurant, and later, started growing corn, basil, squash and pumpkins.”
Graft says he met the owner of a produce company who was growing microgreens in tobacco float trays in a hydroponic setup. The two started working together and experimented with drip lines, soilless mixes and a variety of greens.
As his interest grew, Graft attended workshops and learned more about greenhouse growing. As he focused on production, he developed his own distribution service to ensure products were being delivered at peak quality. “I started marketing through the chefs, and that really helped us to grow,” he said. “We were responsible for what was showing up at the chefs’ doorsteps, so it was easier to visit with the primary purchasing agent and work out issues directly rather than having to go through other sources.” Graft says his position as the grower allows him to be where he wants to be, which is managing production.
Although the Clarksville, IN, business sells to several wholesalers, their primary business is working directly with grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and caterers. “It’s mostly upscale, for those looking for a nicer product,” said Graft, who says that some chefs include Graft’s name or the business name on the menu. “Or they may mention that the greens are local.”
In 2002, Graft invested in metal halide lighting for the greenhouses. “In the old location, we didn’t have lighting. But we learned very quickly that if we wanted to grow 365 days/year and have any chance of producing during the winter months, we couldn’t grow a high-quality product without a good amount of light.” Graft says it was tough to nail down exactly what the ideal lighting would be considering initial cost and overall efficiency. He experimented with high-output LED red and blue spectrum lights over microgreens, and found that the greens responded well. He noted that larger crops would require a lot more lighting, set close to the canopy, to maximize the benefits.
Graft says he isn’t a fan of using lenses over metal halide bulbs because he’s found that the lenses diminish light output. “The reflector is designed to be a certain height for that crop and it diminishes the amount of light to the crop,” he said. “It directs the light toward the center of the crop. Once the light is closer to the crop, the amount of square footage that is lit is diminished. The lenses also become dirty and require more cleanup.”
In 2007, Graft started growing microgreens on a larger scale. “We invested in a vertical forage rack, with a 13-foot long food-grade NFT channel for growing microgreens,” he said. “We use it to grow all of our sprouts.” Graft says one of the advantages of handling the distribution himself is the ability to deliver freshly harvested produce with roots still attached to the growing medium. “They’re growing in oasis cubes, so when we harvest, we keep the roots attached to the plants,” he said. “As long as they stay in that packaging, there’s a much better shelf life than if they’re field grown.”
Graft grows a variety of edible flowers including mums, snapdragons, mini roses, fuchsia, tuberous begonias, flowering lettuce, strawberry blooms, nasturtiums and several blossoming herbs such as Thai basil. “I’m seeing an increase in interest in micro flowers,” said Graft. “A micro flower is anything that’s no larger than a thumbnail. They’re used as a minimal garnish, and some bartenders are using them to float in drinks.”
To keep up with food trends and requests from chefs, Graft is constantly trying new species. “When we have chefs visit and tour the facility, I always try to let them know that we can help with their menu, and that if there are things they want to add to the menu that we don’t grow, we’re willing to try them,” he said. “I can tell them if we’ve tried it in the past or if it didn’t work. Caterers who are doing weddings can give us plenty of advance notice about specific varieties and a certain number of heads (for lettuce).” Graft recalls a customer who requested entire heads of a small butterhead or Bibb lettuce, which he says is easy to do with ample advance notice. Graft says he’s had a lot of requests for wheatgrass, which many people use as a nutritional supplement.
Although it’s time-consuming, Graft offers tours of the growing facility because it’s well worth the time. “I try to do it as much as possible,” he said. “I’ve found that if I can get people to come into the facility, walk around, taste, see things first-hand and ask questions — it makes a difference. We can call them or visit with samples, but it doesn’t do the plant justice until they can see it being grown. I think it changes a lot of perceptions and helps people see how we go from seed to harvest to table.”
The latest addition to Grateful Greens is an 18,000 square foot facility used for packaging, nutrient solution storage and support materials. For IPM, Graft relies on the services of a local entomologist. “With cooler temperatures at night, we see more aphids,” he said. “We use parasitic wasps, ladybugs and green lacewings, and we might use soap or neem oil if things get bad.” Grateful Greens is GAP certified and Graft is working toward HACCP certification.
As he looks toward the future, Graft plans to revamp the company’s website, and will include more photos to help customers make selections. He’d like to add a recipe and idea section so that customers can see learn more about how to use products. Graft has had requests from people who want to purchase at a retail level, so he’s considering adding a retail segment for those who want to purchase directly from the greenhouse.
For more information on Grateful Greens Produce, visit their website at www.gratefulgreensproduce.com