Triangle moms launch urban garden for microgreens

cmyers@newsobserver.comJune 25, 2014 

— A former professional basketball player inspires a pair of PTA moms to start their own business growing adorably tiny vegetables.

No, it’s not the plot of an underfunded movie for daytime television. For the past two months, it’s been everyday life for Tami Purdue and Yvette Ruffin.

In May, Purdue attended a community workshop at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. The featured speaker was Will Allen, a former American Basketball Association and Euroleague basketball player and MacArthur Genius Award-winner who founded the urban agriculture organization Growing Power Inc. In one session, Allen introduced “microgreens,” seedlings of vegetables and herbs even smaller than baby greens but with a surprisingly high nutritional value. Thus began Purdue’s love of the petite plants.

“They’re so delicious! They have so much flavor,” she said with enthusiasm.

Purdue had known Ruffin for years. The two had been involved in the PTA at Enloe High School together and had talked about starting a venture together, Ruffin said.

“We’ve both grown a bit weary with corporate America,” she said.

Inspired by Allen, the duo tried growing their own microgreens in Purdue’s garden. They loved the results, and the idea for Sweet Peas Urban Gardens was born.

According to the Agricultural Research Service, microgreens are “considered a specialty genre of greens.” They are typically harvested a week or two after germination, when they are between one and three inches tall.

The growing process for microgreens is significantly shorter than is normal for vegetables. For instance, the average arugula plant takes roughly thirty to forty days from germination to harvest. Arugula microgreens, however, take just five to fourteen days.

Microgreens boast other benefits as well: intense flavor, high concentrations of vitamins and carotenoids, and, of course, visual appeal. Chefs often use them as garnish, though Purdue notes that they have wider uses in salads and smoothies.

While the miniature plants may be the latest trend in the food industry, researchers at the USDA caution that their short shelf life and labor-intensive growing requirements can make a commercial business tricky.

But Purdue and Ruffin say the work is enjoyable. Purdue described the process of testing microgreens in her garden.

“We just took any seed we had and turned it into a microgreen,” she said. “We just planted it to see what it would do.”

Now the challenge for the two mothers is to turn their idea into a full-fledged business. Like many urban farmers, they are faced with the difficulties in transitioning from a residential garden to a commercial business. The recent explosion in popularity of community gardens and urban agriculture in Raleigh has prompted new debate on the city’s agriculture laws.

“We have a code that was written in the ‘70s that isn’t relevant,” Purdue said. She is following the progress of the Raleigh Wake Food Policy Council Task Force to ensure that Sweet Peas stays in line with city ordinances. With 23 years of experience as a legal administrator, Purdue is confident that the she and her partner will be able to navigate potential complications in the process.

“I’m very aware of what the legal parameters are,” she said. Plans are in the works for the pair to collaborate with Julie Gauthier, proprietor of Chickcharney Farm in Wake Forest. Gauthier currently provides microgreens yo the farmers market home-delivery service The Produce Box, the Wake Forest Farmers Market and the Raleigh City Farm.

“They’ve been able to sell everything I’ve been able to produce,” Gauthier said. “Once people try it, they get hooked and come back for more.”

With the sort of “casual collaboration” Gauthier says the two start-ups have discussed, they hope to meet the growing demand for microgreens.

“I’m excited to just be on the edge of it,” Purdue said.

Myers 919-829-4696

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