Food Triangle: Tami Purdue Thinks the World’s Food System Is Unsustainable, So She Started Growing Microgreens | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Food Triangle: Tami Purdue Thinks the World’s Food System Is Unsustainable, So She Started Growing Microgreens 

At Sweet Peas Urban Gardens in Hillsborough, a million things are happening at once. Bees are pollinating, shiitake mushrooms are growing, LED lights are illuminating seedlings in a crop box, compost is slowly turning scraps into fertile soil, and WWOOFers—volunteers who work on farms in exchange for room and board through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program—are planting vegetables and building a cob house from organic material and subsoil.

"The way we grow food right now is not sustainable," says Tami Purdue, who farms Sweet Peas with only two employees. "This country focuses on monoculture—wheat and corn—but it's not what's good for our bodies. If we don't rethink the food system in a meaningful way, and we don't get on it right now, we're going to have some serious issues with food insecurity."

By 2050, the world's population is expected to reach nearly ten billion, and someone's going to have to feed all those people.

Agribusiness's profit seeking, however, contributes to a food supply that's becoming increasingly undiversified, unhealthy, and unsustainable. One way to disrupt this system of monoculture farming and chart a course toward a more tenable future, Purdue argues, is to begin thinking small.

Purdue is embracing this less-is-more mentality in several ways, including housing her five farmworkers in tiny homes and utilizing a forty-foot shipping container that's been repurposed as an indoor growing space. These grow boxes were first developed by Ben Greene, an N.C. State graduate, as part of his master's thesis. He now sells them through his company, The Farmery. Purdue's grow box houses an acre's worth of microgreens, tiny vegetables and herbs harvested at the formation of the first "true leaves" of the plant.

The operation is one of a kind; other farms may grow microgreens as a way to extend their growing seasons, but no one else in the Triangle is doing it on this scale or utilizing these innovative methods.

The microgreens are all grown hydroponically—without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. A hydroponic environment, Purdue says, uses 90 percent less water than an acre of conventional crops because the water is recycled. And all the microgreens are efficiently grown under LED lights set to each plant's specifications.

"They have made conditions for each particular plant so precise that the plant produces the most antioxidants and it is the healthiest that it can be in a controlled environment," Purdue says. "This technology enables these plants to grow almost by themselves, without a lot of human intervention."

Chefs prize microgreens for their concentrated flavor and their aesthetic, but they're increasingly lauded for their nutrition, too: According to a 2012 study published by the University of Maryland, they have four to forty times the nutrient density of adult plants.

"If things become scarce, there's nothing healthier than putting a baby plant in your mouth, even a small amount," Purdue says. "You can grow a dense amount in a small space because they're tiny. They're packed with everything the plant needs to be healthy, so they're hyper nutritious."

Before Purdue knew micro arugula from micro cilantro, she worked at an intellectual property law firm in Raleigh, dealing with what she describes as the petty grievances of the lawyers lined up outside her door. In 2014, she heard through her children's high school PTA that there were about fifty students who were food insecure, and that the PTA wanted to start a food bank to help alleviate the problem.

Alarmed, Purdue began volunteering at the school's food bank once a week. Through her volunteer experience, she got to know the people behind the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, who brought food for the pantry, and they invited her to their urban agriculture workshop.

It was there that she first heard urban-farming guru Will Allen speak. He had been brought in to teach attendees how to grow mushrooms, build a compost bin, erect a hoop house (a type of greenhouse), and grow microgreens, touting them as a way to combat food insecurity. Purdue was also intrigued by his claim that growing microgreens for area chefs was the quickest way to establish a revenue stream for a community garden.

Purdue planted every seed she had on the front porch of her Raleigh home. A couple of months later, she joined the Wake Forest Farmers Market, where she met chef Lotah Fields from Farm Table Kitchen & Bar, who bought everything she had grown. She also began offering her microgreens through The Produce Box, a Raleigh service that delivers fresh produce to people's doorsteps, and started selling microgreens at Raleigh City Farm, where she met Greene, whose grow box allowed Purdue to consistently grow five times as many microgreens in a more controlled environment while still operating out of her Raleigh home.

Buoyed by the early support from area chefs, she took a leap of faith and left the law firm in 2015 to officially become an urban farmer. She relocated the operation to Hillsborough at the end of 2017.

In addition to weekly deliveries of microgreens and edible flowers to Triangle restaurants, Sweet Peas Urban Gardens sells microgreens at Rebus Works' Saturday Market and local farmers markets. Purdue also donates market leftovers to A Place at the Table, downtown Raleigh's pay-what-you-can cafe (see p. 40), where the microgreens deliver a concentrated dose of nutrients and a pop of color to salads and sandwiches. She will soon have two additional grow box installations in Raleigh, one at Rebus Works and one at Transfer Co. food hall.

"We're getting ready to put in a box in Transfer Co. which sits in Chavis Heights, one of the biggest public-housing neighborhoods in Raleigh," Purdue says. "We're in the process of purchasing five grow boxes glommed onto a central brain box and a processing box."

This new grow-box technology will streamline efficiency and maximize the crop yield of nutrient-rich microgreens with an even smaller environmental footprint. Purdue has partnered with investors to establish this model in downtown Raleigh and develop a business plan to duplicate it in other cities, including Atlanta, Tallahassee, and Dallas.

By demonstrating the potential of the grow box tech and growing microgreens in an urban environment, Purdue hopes to educate and inspire community members to be part of the change.

"You want people to see what's going on," Purdue says. "You want them to be the people who get to eat the food that's locally grown, and you want them to be part of solving a community problem, which includes how we don't talk to each other, we don't eat good food, and we don't do enough for each other."


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