Swift: From Microgreen Farming to Food Waste Recycling
In farming, even if you do everything right, things can go wrong. Access to a sustainable, thriving market is essential for any farmer to succeed. New and first-generation farmers are often forced into the dilemma of either purchasing somewhat affordable land far away from the established markets of urban centers or purchasing overpriced land near prime markets. This decades-old predicament leaves thousands of new and first-generation farmers and ranchers without land. The National Young Farmers Coalition found that access to land is the number one challenge new farmers and ranchers face. Farmer Reed Youngbar saw this predicament and tried to do things differently.
Reed Youngbar and his wife Jessica Hart started Swift Microgreens, a local, year-round microgreen garden, in 2018 in Billings, Montana.
Roughly five years ago, Reed was itching for a career change.
“I wanted to do something that I felt like I could really get behind for a long period of time...something that was relevant that I would want to be doing for the next 20 to 40 years,” Reed said. “I thought for a long time about my skill set, what the future may look like, and what I care about.”
Reed came to the conclusion that he wanted to dedicate his life to growing food. Both Reed and Jessica had worked helping out on farms sporadically for the past 15 years but only recently considered it as full-time work.
“Food was something that I was always passionate about and something that I knew I would continue to care about,” Reed said.
What stood in the way of Reed's revelation was where to start and how to make it work. Neither Reed nor Jessica are from farm families. With the constant news about struggling farmers and ranchers, unfair markets and prices, and the harsh realities of climate change, the idea of farming seemed daunting, despite their passion.
“We decided to look into what options were open to us,” Reed explained, “We looked at doing a traditional market garden on leased land but that was hard to work out because we wanted something more permanent and we wanted access to a market year-round — it ended up not working out.”
Research on land options and sustainable markets led Reed and Jessica to an alternate route: A 500-square-foot, indoor growing operation located off of Jessica’s parents’ house. Aside from the appealing cost of renting the small space, the farm-to-table and local-food movement in Billings, Montana, made the market a favorable one. Montana’s biggest city was also home to two colleges, major medical centers, and organizations like Northern Plains Resource Council and the Yellowstone Valley Food Hub, making the market for local foods and support for family farmers especially rich.
“Given the climate of Billings, we knew that an indoor option could be an answer to a lot of the hurdles we would face outside,” Reed said, “We wanted to give our customers access to healthy, fresh, products year-round.”
The journey to understand and then choose to grow microgreens was a long one for Reed.
Once they decided to take the plunge, the actual set up of growing microgreens was relatively affordable Reed said.
“It doesn’t take a lot of space and you can order all of the parts online,” Reed said, “the whole set up cost around $1500, so affordable compared to a lot of other farming setups and operations.”
Microgreens are vegetable greens harvested right after the cotyledon leaves have developed. As Reed explained, “a microgreen is a baby vegetable, harvested before its’ second set of leaves (called the True Leaf) develops.”
The growing process of microgreens is not that different from any other planting. Seeds are sown and then scattered onto a soil and sand mixture tray under direct light. They’re watered and looked after for the month it takes them to develop. As the sprouts grow, the area around them is cleared continuously. After about a month, the sprouts are ready for harvest.
There are two reasons microgreens are popping up on store shelves around the country. First, microgreens have a unique and vivid flavor that is hard to explain. Broccoli sprouts add a hearty, green flavor to dishes, whereas radish sprouts are spicier and can add a zing of flavor to salads or pasta or whatever meal it is prepared in. Second, microgreens pack a dense delivery of nutrients and minerals to consumers. Harvesting the plant in the first stages of life locks the nutrients into the plant before they’re able to disperse.
Over the last few decades, the nutrient density in many crops has been depleted due to unhealthy soils. A report by Eco Farming Daily shows the level of every nutrient in almost every kind of food has fallen between 10 and 100 percent. An individual today would need to consume twice as much meat, three times as much fruit, and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same amount of minerals and trace elements available in those same foods in 1940. Reed and Jessica were well aware of the importance of nutrient-dense food and healthy soil, it’s part of the reason they set up their operation the way they did.
“Microgreens are just a real delicious and potent way to get a necessary dose of important vitamins and minerals,” Reed said.
Reed explained that a microgreen has 40 times the nutrient value as a fully developed plant. He says the nutrient value of two oz of broccoli sprouts is equal to two lbs of mature broccoli.
In the past few years, there has been a lot of research on the health benefits of microgreens.
The compound sulforaphane, found in broccoli sprouts activates a neuron pathway that reduces inflammation. As Reed explained, it “essentially eats cancer cells.” Research at John Hopkins University found that the chemicals derived from Broccoli Sprouts showed promise in treating Autism.
The antioxidant, mineral concentrate is a huge draw for health-conscious consumers and the particular flavors of different varieties make microgreens popular among chefs.
Microgreens are unique, and the interest in them is growing in Montana.
“The market for microgreens in Billings is small, so we have had to create that market place, essentially,” Reed said.
Reed and Jessica have found themselves educating potential consumers on what their product is.
“It’s just getting out there,” Reed explained. “We reach out to a lot of chefs who try and use local food and they’re kind enough to include us by name.”
Reed and Jessica also utilized social media to grow their brand and educate their customers and community. Swift used an Instagram account that Reed and Jessica spent a lot of time on, aiming to connect to others with their product.
“Educating and creating a market for our product is a big task on top of actually doing the production, but we knew we’d have to do that,” Reed said.
Another key aspect of Reed and Jessica’s work was giving back to the soil. Although they didn’t farm conventionally, they prioritized building their community’s soil. Reed and Jessica offered a service called Swift Buckets, a food waste recycling service. The service allowed customers to buy and give back to the soil. Swift provided a 5-gallon bucket to customers, which customers then filled with compostable material from their home. Every week Swift picked up the waste and turned it into nutrient-rich soil conditioner through fermentation. The process encourages micro-nutrients that feed beneficial bacteria and boost the microbiology in the soil. Unlike composting, fermenting the food waste is absent of oxygen and heat, yet still creates healthy additives for soil. The end product was then sold to local stores to be resold and used throughout the community. Swift Buckets helped the community divert tons of waste from the landfill every week and reduced the community’s carbon footprint significantly while helping the local economy.
“Healthy, living soil retains water more efficiently, leading to higher crop yields, more robust plants that are less susceptible to pests and disease...soil rich in beneficial bacteria does not need any fertilizers, making the soil able to produce more nutrient-dense food,” Reed explained.
Swift saw a lot of interest in both their microgreen and food recycling business thanks to family members, friends, and supporting organizations in the Billings Community. The Yellowstone Valley Food Hub, a one-stop-shop on the West end of Billings that collects, processes, markets, and distributes food products from local farmers and ranchers, was vital in housing and promoting Swift products. The Yellowstone Valley Food Hub was developed by Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, a group of Northern Plains Resource Council members and partners who advocate for a healthy, inviting, and sustainable community. The Food Hub delivered fresh, local food to consumers, saving producers' time and resources. Reed noted how the Food Hub benefitted his business. Fellow Yellowstone Valley Food Hub producer, Brittany Moreland was recently hired as the general manager. Reed said that having a representative helping him market and advocate for his product was essential.
Reed and Jessica wanted to give back to the community that made their operation possible through 2018 and early 2019.
In June, Reed and Jessica were unable to continue growing microgreens. Their financial return did not cover the time and money spent producing. Instead, they’ve shut down their farming operation and are focusing on their food waste recycling company Swift Buckets.
“We started offering curbside pickup in Billings and have a drop off location in Red Lodge at Red Lodge Recycling,” Reed said. “We are excited about our food waste recycling company because it speaks to a larger customer base which has a more promising potential to support us financially.”
Currently, Swift Buckets sells their soil additive Big Sky Bio (the final product from their food waste recycling) at Harvest Tech in Billings and they have plans to start selling to a handful of local nurseries and soil distribution companies that create rich biological soil blends.
“We’re hoping to make all of our soil additives available to the public by the spring of 2020,” said Reed.
For Reed and Jessica and their microgreen operation, their research, penny-pinching, and planning paid off. They had customers and support throughout their community, access to a sustainable market, and low-costs of operation. The problem for Reed and Jessica is the same problem for thousands of new and beginning producers across the country: Our food system isn’t set up to support farmers.
The U.S. Labor Department found the average age of farmers and ranchers is 58. More than a third of U.S. farmers are 65 or older. This raises concerns like, who will grow our food as this generation of farmers looks to retire. Although there's a new crop of first-generation farmers interested in feeding their communities, outdated and unfair policies often prevent them from succeeding. Beginning farmers made up 27 percent of U.S. producers in 2017. Their average age was 46.3, and their farms were smaller than average in both acres and sales. At this rate, there will not be enough producers to fulfill the needs of U.S. consumers.
The 2018 Farm Bill was a chance to advocate for new and beginning farmers and producers like Jessica and Reed who wanted to give back to their community. Although some funding was allocated to new and beginning farmers, Congress disregarded bipartisan reforms to cap payments to the largest farms and address consolidation in agriculture.
Despite the continuous uphill battle, farmers (new and seasoned) have demonstrated their grit and their resilience.
Today, Reed is working in Cooke City part time building and distributing local food around the region through 406 Market, a group that helps Montana producers, growers, food and beverage manufacturers connect to their community through a system of distributors and buyers.
Jessica is working on photo and video production regionally and globally and is the primary operator of Swift Buckets and distributor of Big Sky Bio.
“We are working with local producers to get more Big Sky Bio into our local soil systems, to build healthier land, and we are developing soil blends combining Big Sky Bio, worm casting, compost, and local topsoil to create rich biologically active soil blends,” Reed said.
Although their microgreen producing days are on hold, Reed and Jessica are still working hard to fight for better soils, better food throughout their community, and a healthy local economy.