Imagine them all over West Virginia, growing produce for you and me.
➼ If you haven’t seen with your own eyes the neon pink structure that glows on the left bank when it’s cold out, you’ve probably heard about it. It looks like a rave you’re missing or some avant-garde art installation.
That fanciful hue gives entirely the wrong impression about Micro Genesis, a very serious greenhouse operation headed up by sixth-generation farmer and 2015 WVU graduate Jordon Masters.
Masters grew up on a cow-calf operation in Greenbrier County. The elder Masters’ farm was awarded Farm of the Year in 2018 by the West Virginia Conservation Agency—that, while he also works a full-time day job. Everything the younger Masters saw growing up told him that, in this day and age, small-scale farming can only ever be a side hustle.
But then an extension agent told him that, if all of the farmers in Greenbrier County switched to growing nothing but lettuces, they wouldn’t be able to satisfy even the state school systems’ need. That got him thinking: If there’s plenty of demand, then what farmers need to make their operations life-sustaining must be more efficient ways to create the supply. He entered the 2014-15 West Virginia Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition and, as a competitor and then a winner, got connected with startup advice, business services, and potential investors and partners.
Fast forward four years, and Masters’ Micro Genesis is an operating greenhouse marketing to some of the best restaurants in town. It’s also the incubation site of a fresh business model that might be savvy enough to change the fortunes of small farmers.
Micro Genesis’ operation isn’t just seeds sprouted, grown as they will, and harvested when there’s a customer. It’s a well-regulated system that rethinks costs—and quality.
For example, a lot of greenhouses grow hydroponically. With roots suspended directly in a solution of easily-absorbed nutrients, the theory goes, plants can concentrate their energies on stems and leaves, and they grow quickly.
But that misses the point of plants as food, Masters says. “If you have a kid and you give it everything it wants, it’s going to be spoiled and it’s not going to be able to stand up on its own. Plants are the same way.” Making nutrients so easily available results in inferior flavor and texture, he says. Growing plants in soil makes them work a little harder, enhancing not only flavor and texture but color, aroma, nutrition, and even shelf-life.
So Micro Genesis workers sow seeds every weekend into trays of soil, which go into warm, moist germination chambers at one end of the greenhouse. After germination, the trays are moved to irrigation tables, and they proceed through the greenhouse week by week until harvest.
Some seedlings are harvested really small, right after the first two true leaves form. These are microgreens: lettuces and vegetables like chard, beets, and other tender garden plants cut larger than shoots but smaller than baby lettuces. Microgreens have a delicate texture and a distinctive flavor. And the way Micro Genesis’ microgreens pop on the plate in lush, appetizing greens and reds, it seems like Masters may be right about the benefits of growing in soil.
Microgreens make up about a third of Micro Genesis’ production. Another third, harvested at four weeks, is spring mix. And the last third is basil.
The way the plants are harvested is one part of the efficiency rethink.
In Masters’ mind, a greenhouse operation has two main inputs: utilities and labor. There isn’t much to be done about utilities; either the heat has to be on, or it doesn’t. But labor—that’s ripe for improvement.
Harvesting and sowing are the greenhouse’s two most labor-intensive activities, he says. Harvesting small greens is not only time-consuming, it’s hard to do well. If you grasp them, you’re likely to crush some of them, leaving them unappetizing and prone to rot. If you harvest them with a knife, you’re likely to cut partly into some in the next row—again, unappetizing, rot.
So Micro Genesis designed its own harvester. The simple, adjustable device draws a blade across each tray just once, at just the right height. Fast, no crushing, no stray cuts.
With regard to sowing, the company is prototyping a seeder now.
That’s just the start of the efficiencies. Remember the connections Masters got through the business plan competition? One of those turned into a partnership with Nashville-based agriculture and food industry conglomerate Fresh Hospitality—parent company of Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe and several restaurants at WVU’s Evansdale Crossing. Fresh Hospitality CEO Michael Bodnar, an Oak
Hill native and also a WVU alum, has a deep interest in automation.
“So we’ve developed our own cloud-based automation system,” Masters says. He points to a computer on a desk in the greenhouse. “This is controlling all of our irrigation, our lighting. We’ve got beacons, sensors, everything custom-built in-house. The information goes to our private server network, and that sends back to the greenhouse what to do: Should the lights be on? Should the heating be on? Should the irrigation be on?”
For now, the system controls general greenhouse conditions. But Micro Genesis has workers not only for growing, but also on the information technology side, further developing the automation. With Masters, Bodnar, and help from Bodnar’s network, they’re developing a robot they call The Mule—“because it’s going to work like a mule,” Masters says—that will inspect and make decisions at the level of the individual plant.
Micro Genesis is working simultaneously at packaging all of that up with some functions that are more conventional but tailored to agricultural operations. “I love ag, but I hate accounting. Our system takes care of accounting, we take care of inventory management, employee maintenance,” Masters says. “When you use our system and you put a seed in the dirt, we track that from seed to finished product, and we’re able to account for everything in between. Our system takes care of all of that so the grower can focus more on actually growing the crop.”
The plan is to offer that comprehensive package to small farms across West Virginia.
Making Small Farming Pay Again
One of the things that undermines small farm profitability is the disconnect between small farms and big buyers like restaurants, school systems, and retailers. It’s too hard for small farmers to market themselves to big buyers. And it’s too hard for big buyers to work with lots of little growers and tolerate the ups and downs that are inherent in small operations. Aggregators are stepping into that gap with good success and, given Micro Genesis’ focus on consistency and farmer profitability, aggregation is a natural next step.
“We want to create a network of small farmers around West Virginia who are all growing consistently—yields are consistent, but also the product is consistent—so we can tie them all together,” Masters says. “So we don’t have 100 acres under one greenhouse, but we have 100 acres of greenhouses spread out across the community.”
Micro Genesis would become a vertically integrated producer–aggregator: for farmers, a sure enough market to make investments of time and money worthwhile. And for buyers, a source of locally grown produce at a quality consistent enough and a scale large enough to be reliable.
Masters hopes to begin offering Micro Genesis’ package to farms as early as next year. Meanwhile, you can try Micro Genesis produce at Bourbon Prime, Hill and Hollow, Sargasso, Stefano’s, Table 9, and Taziki’s—or pick up some microgreens at the Mountain People’s Co-op.
Oh and, about those pink lights? They’re LED grow lights. If we’re lucky, they’ll be here for many winters to come. growntomatter.com