Valley Bounty: Micro but mighty: At a new farm in South Hadley, small is beautiful — and delicious

Love Leaf Farm grows dozens of kinds of microgreens and microherbs in a small indoor operation in South Hadley.

Love Leaf Farm grows dozens of kinds of microgreens and microherbs in a small indoor operation in South Hadley. PHOTOS COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

A clean growing environment and sharp cutters are key in ensuring a long shelf life for microgreens grown at Love Leaf Farm.

A clean growing environment and sharp cutters are key in ensuring a long shelf life for microgreens grown at Love Leaf Farm. COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

A mix of freshly harvested microgreens grown at Love Leaf Farm in South Hadley.

A mix of freshly harvested microgreens grown at Love Leaf Farm in South Hadley. COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

Most microgreens and microherbs have a similar taste and nutritional profile as their full-grown varieties, just more concentrated.

Most microgreens and microherbs have a similar taste and nutritional profile as their full-grown varieties, just more concentrated. COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

Love Leaf Farm grows dozens of kinds of microgreens and microherbs in a small indoor operation in South Hadley.

Love Leaf Farm grows dozens of kinds of microgreens and microherbs in a small indoor operation in South Hadley. COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

Love Leaf Farm's table at the Easthampton Farmers Market in summer 2023.

Love Leaf Farm's table at the Easthampton Farmers Market in summer 2023. COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

Baked teriyaki tofu and sticky rice with red cabbage and radish microgreens grwon by Love Leaf Farm in South Hadley.

Baked teriyaki tofu and sticky rice with red cabbage and radish microgreens grwon by Love Leaf Farm in South Hadley. COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

A cream cheese bagel topped with dill microherbs from Love Leaf Farm is one of farm owner Michael Fredette's favorites.

A cream cheese bagel topped with dill microherbs from Love Leaf Farm is one of farm owner Michael Fredette's favorites.

COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

COURTESY LOVE LEAF FARM

By JACOB NELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 02-02-2024 11:50 AM

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Love Leaf Farm in South Hadley, it’s this: don’t judge a farm by its size … or the size of their crops, for that matter.

In the words of farmer-owner Michael Fredette, “Love Leaf Farm is a very small, indoor vertical farm specializing in microgreens and selling mostly at farmers markets.”

Fredette has grown his business using the resources he has available without taking on any debt. By recognizing the benefits of something small, he is adding a little value and joy both to his life and the local economy. For many of his customers, that’s the same reason they add microgreens to a meal.

“Microgreens,” he explains, “are a little bigger than a sprout and a little smaller than a baby green. They grow for around one to two weeks before we harvest and sell them immediately.”

Not limited to traditional leafy greens, a wide variety of plants from radishes to red cabbage also grow tasty microgreens. Across the board, microgreens tend to have highly concentrated nutrients and flavors, often similar to the full-sized plant they would grow into.

Fredette’s green thumb and appreciation for home-grown produce date back to his childhood. Growing up in a single parent household, gardening was a fun activity that also stretched their food budget.

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“Later in life I worked in commercial flower greenhouses,” he says. “Then in 2017, I took a new farmer training program offered by (University of Massachusetts Amherst) and Nuestras Raices in Holyoke for a summer. It was a great crash course, but I wasn’t at a place in life and didn’t have the capital to start a farm yet.”

By 2023, all the right ingredients were in place and Fredette took the plunge to start Love Leaf Farm. Deciding to invest most of his savings and time into a start-up came with excitement and trepidation. So far things are going well, thanks in part to a methodical approach.

For now, most of the farm fits into a few hundred square feet in Fredette’s basement. There, microgreens grow in trays stacked high on vertical shelves, living simply off water, light, and the nutrients in the soil they’re rooted in. Around them, the entire room has been outfitted to create a clean growing area and allow for fine-tuned climate control using a heat pump, humidifiers and fans.

Farming indoors looks very different than farming outdoors and brings both tradeoffs and advantages. Growing inside tends to be energy intensive, with lights and equipment consuming a fair amount of electricity. At the same time, these techniques unlock completely new farming real estate, and open the door for year-round production of some crops. This brings economic development and local food to even more places on the map, particularly urban areas.

Careful adjustment of conditions in the growing room is important for plants to thrive, but with so many variables the process can be tricky. For example, “I learned when you have tens of thousands of tiny little plants respirating, it gets humid very fast,” says Fredette. “Airflow is important, and we stop watering 24 hours before harvesting. We also use super sharp knives to make clean cuts. All of that leads to a fresher product.”

Fresher microgreens have a longer shelf life in the fridge – sometimes even weeks – giving more time to enjoy them. Unfamiliarity with how to use a new ingredient can deter some people from trying it, but when it comes to eating microgreens, there really are no wrong ways to do it. Fredette encourages experimentation, and offers a few suggestions.

“You can make microgreens the hero of your salad,” he offers. “They’re great in sandwiches. I put pea shoots in stir-fry, and even sunflower shoots on pizza. We’re also growing micro herbs, like cilantro, basil, dill, and the cilantro on tacos? Oh my gosh. Dill on a cream cheese bagel? It’s incredible. Really any place you’d use a leafy green, you can swap microgreens for the extra benefits.”

Benefits meaning flavor, but also a nutritional upgrade too. Studies abound showing that, by weight, most microgreens contain concentrations of vitamins and minerals that far exceed the the full-grown versions of the same plants.

Love Leaf Farm’s microgreens are currently available every other week at the Easthampton Winter Farmers Market held Sundays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Eastworks building. During February, Fredette will be there on the 4th and the 18th. He also plans to return to summer farmers markets in Easthampton and South Hadley at a minimum, and maybe others too.

Looking ahead, “now that I have the farming set up figured out,’ says Fredette, “I want to move from focusing on that to focusing on growing the business and expanding our market base. A home delivery option is in the works. Hopefully I’ll start selling to restaurants this year, and co-ops or grocery stores would be awesome too.”

While he’s excited about new market channels, he’s also grateful for the face-to-face feedback that comes from selling direct to customers at farmers markets. When things are tough, a smile and a rave review soothe some of the challenges.

“It’s just me doing this, wearing all the hats,” he says. “It’s a lot sometimes, but it’s been really fun developing relationships with people and seeing how much they enjoy what I’m growing.”

Fredette is also grateful for the social platform that farmers markets offer the farmers themselves.

“I’ve loved meeting people, bouncing ideas, and feeling the camaraderie of this farmer community,” he says. “Toni Hall from Song Sparrow Farm in Florence is awesome, I love them. Jen Krassler from Flora and Fauna Farm in Easthampton — who also manages the Easthampton and South Hadley markets — has been fantastic. Mike Madden from Grown Up Farm in Belchertown too.”

Farms and crops of all shapes and sizes play important roles in building a resilient local food system, one that feeds a healthy community and a healthy economy. In many circumstances, choosing to go micro makes great sense.

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms of all kinds in your neck of the woods, visit buylocalfood.org.